Not only did they lose the momentum of their eight-month-long Benghazi® caterwauling, the White House also weakened any leverage they might have gained by taking decisive action over the IRS's using of "inappropriate criteria" in reviewing organizations' applications for tax-exempt status. The president fired the IRS acting director and promised quick action on a report by the Treasury's inspector general for tax administration.
More than a few Democrats viewed the entire matter as less than a tempest in a teapot.
While IRS bureaucrats did use inappropriate criteria when choosing to go after "tea party" groups seeking tax exempt status, Republican outrage over the revelations was marked with the usual hypocrisy. It wasn't as if this was the first time the IRS had used its powers politically, having previously focused on the NAACP, just to note one example. And liberal groups received the same IRS letter asking questions as conservative groups received. Three of them had their applications denied.
At the root of the problem is the murkiness of IRS parameters for judging when a "social welfare" organization engages in too much political activity. The muddiness of the rules allowed, even encouraged, IRS employees well down the chain of command to exercise judgment that they shouldn't. In place of the murkiness ought to be very specific rules barring all political activity or defining it very narrowly. Everybody would be clear on what qualifies and disqualifies groups for tax-exempt status, and we could bring an end to exempting political groups masquerading as social welfare groups. More truthfulness and less hyperventilation would result.
The potshots taken over the IRS affair had their humorous, if predictable, moments. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida demanded to know why President Obama wasn't calling for an investigation of the matter by the Department of Justice. Apparently in his efforts to needle the president for not getting a probe started, Rubio didn't notice that Attorney General Eric Holder had already launched one.
Meanwhile, Holder was summoned to Capitol Hill for a sworn tête-à-tête with 37 members of the House Judiciary Committee, where he was asked a vast array of questions that included a few on Benghazi, the IRS affair and the revelation that the Justice Department had obtained two months' worth of phone records of editors and reporters from the Associated Press in an effort to track down a leak from within the administration about anti-terrorist action in Yemen. The 20 phone lines that were affected included work, home and cell phones. Holder couldn't answer most questions on that matter because he has recused himself from the DOJ's investigation into it.
Unlike Benghazi and the IRS affair, the AP matter has received little attention from Republicans and generally subdued wait-and-see objections from Democrats. The AP itself called the seizure of the records a "massive and unprecedented intrusion." The ACLU called it "press intimidation" and an "unacceptable abuse of power." The Electronic Freedom Foundation said the taking of the records by the "DOJ has struck a terrible blow against the freedom of the press and the ability of reporters to investigate and report the news."
Executives at The New York Times and the Washington Post condemned the government's action. There was also some rumbling from a few Democrats, such as Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Some leftist critics had to suppress their general distaste for the stenographic media, which the Associated Press has come to epitomize, in raising their objections to government overreach and failure to follow its own guidelines in acquiring the AP phone records.
The best news to emerge so far in the AP matter is the administration's call for a federal shield law that would give reporters more protection in keeping the identity of confidential sources secret and quashing the subpoenaing of their phone records. Republicans killed such proposals in 2008 and 2010. The Obama administration backed a shield law in 2010, but attached numerous national security exemptions to it. The White House has asked Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York to introduce a new shield law. Any Republicans who have expressed reservations about the taking of the AP phone records will thus get a chance to put up or shut up.