Black, White, and Gray

President Obama has managed to take the wind out of the Benghazi sails, but probably not the way he would have preferred.  The President has two more investigations on his hands.  And from what I can see, he deserves both.

The two new “scandals” involve the IRS and the Justice Department.  The IRS made the list by singling out and investigating certain conservative groups filing for 501 (C) (3) status.  The Justice Department got the nod by using secret subpoena power to collect a huge number of Associated Press reporters’ telephone numbers and records, all in pursuit of a government leaker.  Hmmm.

Both of these events seem fundamentally dumb in their execution, but not necessarily in their assumed purpose.   The 501(c)(3) status transforms an organization into “tax exempt” classification,  This can convert corporation money into “issues” based free speech expression.  It can also hide the identity of those backing the organization’s public positions.  The specific targets were right wing, conservative groups advocating strongly anti-Democrat, anti-Obama positions.  The tax code, however, does not allow 501(c)(3)organizations to express support or criticism for specific party or candidates.  Hmmm.

The AP situation is a bit more nuanced.  The Bush Administration as well as the Obama Administration “leak” information whenever they feel it appropriate.  Yet both Administrations cried “foul” when someone within government leaded information unauthorized.  Hmmm.

Investigating specific groups, especially political ones, in a targeted manner is quite simply dumb and amateurish.  Why not ask the same of all organizations applying for 501(c)(3) status?  If that requirement would not pass public acceptance, then narrowing it to some small, targeted group would be unlikely to also.

Any Administration should be cautious about restricting or attempting to restrict the first Amendment.  And each Administration could help its own case by not engaging in self initiated leaks.  But the press does not have or deserve a “free pass”.  They are obligated to use discretion in what they print.  For sure that makes the release of classified information a tough call, but that’s responsible journalism.  Using a hammer (the size of this AP subpoena) to go after a gnat is prima facia dumb.

So why has this all happened?

It is too soon to know but there are some usual suspects.

  • (1) The Obama Administration has been a “reactive” one.  Team Obama tends to monitor and then react.  While this can be effective in not creating a problem through ill conceived initiatives, it sets the rest of the Administration up to handle problems that do arise without a clear “tone at the top”.
  • (2) These are complicated times.  There should be no doubt that all special interest groups see tax exempt status as an advantages.  They can attract money and provide anonymity to the donors.  Where exactly do these groups cross the line from issues to political statements is an important question?
  • (3) The deeds of ambitious people are always difficult to control.  Ambitious people are also the ones who get things done.  And in the bureaucratic maizes known as the IRS or the Justice Department, how do aspiring workers get recognized and promoted?  Cutting corners and skirting edges often gives one an advantage and leads to results.

Resolution of these two new problems will probably look like this.  First, the IRS will promise never to do it again and ceremonially fire several agents.  Second, Attorney General Holder will admit that while legal, the subpoenas were probably over reach.  He will return the records and promise to be more careful in the future.  Third, groups like the Tea Party and the Associated Press will proudly declare victory and proclaim their allegiance to the Constitution.

And then if nothing else arise, it will be Benghazi time again.

 

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