BETSY HART: Where was the GOP when news of IRS scandal broke?
June 02, 2013 2:20 AM

So where were the Republicans on the Internal Revenue Service scandal a year ago? Former Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Karen Finney asked that very question on MSNBC recently.

“There’s something about this that I find stunning ...,” she said. “... Everybody knew about this investigation long before the election. So if they were that freaked out about it, why didn’t (Republican presidential nominee Mitt) Romney make more of a big deal of it during the election?”

Her comments seemed to be an attempt to make the case that no one in the Obama administration then or now was trying to cover up the IRS abuse of tea party-movement activists. And that, ultimately, it was not a big deal anyway.

Marc Tracy over at The New Republic goes further, suggesting several possible reasons why Republicans didn’t get more excited about this when allegations about IRS targeting of tea party groups became more widely known more than a year ago. One being: “If Republicans made Democrats answer questions about the IRS harassing conservatives who were trying to exercise their constitutionally guaranteed right to speech, maybe Democrats would make Republicans answer questions about harassing minorities who were trying to exercise their constitutionally protected right to vote.”

It’s an interesting new defense of President Barack Obama: Republicans are running a smear campaign, and yes, there might be truth to it, but they didn’t run it earlier, so they are to blame for a lot of this anyway.

But though it’s the wrong point, it’s a great question. Why didn’t the Republicans controlling the House put this front and center of their agenda in an election year?

As we now know, it’s a very big deal that IRS agents worked to deny or delay granting tax-exempt status to tea party-affiliated organizations, and in the process they harassed those within the organizations, pursuing them with invasive questioning and personal audits.

The details are ugly.

But as Tracy rightly points out, this story was in the national news by March 2012, even in reports carried by The New York Times and The Associated Press. There was a flurry of letters from Congress to IRS officials about the harassment. The IRS commissioner denied wrongdoing at the time at low-level congressional hearings that raised this very issue.

And then it was essentially all quiet on the GOP front.

Meanwhile, dozens of those affected were continuing to come forward and tell their stories, and groups like the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) began representing them against the IRS. As I write, the ACLJ is filing a lawsuit against the IRS on behalf of 25 affected groups.

In other words, the information was out there in abundance.

But only now, only after the IRS itself admitted to some wrongdoing, are we seeing large-scale outrage from Republicans and a desire to dig deeper.

So in an election year, where was the GOP?

Why wasn’t the Republican-controlled House continuously holding hearings last spring and summer, and doing everything else it could, to highlight the abuse? Why weren’t Republicans fighting this battle and revealing to the American people things we needed to know, especially in an election year?

Tracy posits other reasons, including that many establishment Republicans really do not like tea party activists — and I think he’s bang-on right there.

It’s also a fact that too many Republicans are just too easily intimidated. I’m ha6

rdly the first conservative to point this out.

But I haven’t heard much discussion of the cause, and it seems to be this: Democrats are much more likely to believe that government is an answer to their problems. And so they have less reticence in invoking its powers. Republicans, at some level, really are wary of government, so they are never as comfortable controlling its reins as are Democrats. This leaves them impotent when rightly using its legitimate power is necessary.

(I think Republicans in Washington are too often every bit as comfortable as Democrats with the fruits of the establishment they are in, by the way, but that’s a different column.)

It’s a conundrum. And no, I don’t want to see the GOP become as closely tied to governmental power as Democrats are.

But they had better figure out the right balance while they still have the opportunity to do so. Or they may find themselves once again not needing to know how to handle power well, because they won’t have any.

Reach Betsy Hart at betsysblog.com.

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