(Bloomberg View) -- The IRS scandal came to a pathetic, whimpering conclusion earlier this month. For half a decade the scandal had kept delinquent members of Congress occupied and served up reliable programming to Fox News and other conservative media. But when Internal Revenue Service Commissioner John Koskinen walked out of his office on Nov. 9, of his own volition, on schedule, his fine reputation intact, the whole greasy production quietly expired.
When President Barack Obama appointed Koskinen in 2013, the Republicans had been swinging at the IRS for some time. A band of House Republicans later attempted to impeach Koskinen, claiming various misdeeds. But it was a late-inning stunt, a too-obvious effort to extend a scandal that had served so many so well for so long.
Shortly before Koskinen left office, the Treasury Department Inspector General for Tax Administration released the (presumably) final report on the scandal. Like a previous Inspector General report, it tried to soothe Republican feelings – the IRS really, really should’ve handled things differently -- while utterly refuting Republican charges about what had transpired.
The story told by Republicans is so well known that it substitutes for fact. In the first years of the Obama administration, Tea Party groups and other conservative organizations rose up to defy the government. When the groups sought IRS approval for their designations as “social welfare” organizations under the tax code, the IRS targeted them with burdensome queries, harassing the groups while slow-walking reviews of their applications. In this telling, it was a political vendetta – carried out against conservatives by a government agency that many anti-government, anti-tax conservatives especially despised.
Republicans claimed the IRS served as an attack dog for the Obama White House. But inquiries by the House Ways and Means Committee, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, the Senate Finance Committee, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and the Justice Department all failed to produce evidence of political interference.
Perhaps it was because the premise of the scandal -- that Obama’s political team would want to destroy local Tea Party groups -- was absurd. For Democrats, local Tea Party groups were a political Giving Tree, bearing glorious, loopy fruit such as Christine O’Donnell and Todd Akin, Tea Party candidates who managed to lose crucial Senate campaigns that a competent Republican – perhaps any competent Republican -- would’ve won.
What’s more, none of the groups actually needed IRS approval to operate. “These organizations didn’t have to wait for the IRS to tell them anything to go into business,” Koskinen said in a telephone interview last week.
Yet the IRS clearly applied extra scrutiny to groups that it thought might be engaged in too much politics to warrant the preferential tax designation. One way IRS personnel did that was to look for key words, such as “Tea Party.” Other words that triggered IRS scrutiny included: “Occupy,” “green energy,” “medical marijuana” and “progressive.”
Contrary to the Republican story, the IRS never targeted conservatives. The IRS targeted politics, which was pretty much what it was supposed to do.
In September, the Trump Justice Department reaffirmed the decision of the Obama Justice Department not to prosecute Lois Lerner, the IRS bureaucrat whom Republicans settled on as a criminal mastermind after they had failed to find an exploitable connection to Obama.
“The great thing about it for the Freedom Caucus and Capitol Hill,” Koskinen said of the GOP’s investigative shtick, “was that it could keep going. You start with the substance of the issue and, when that runs out, you go to the process. And when that runs out, you go after the messenger.”
The failure to punish someone upset Republican Representative Kevin Brady. “Today’s decision does not mean Lois Lerner is innocent,” Brady stated. “It means the justice system in Washington is deeply flawed."
Brady is not a reckless Freedom Caucus radical. The chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, he is considered one of the more knowledgeable, capable and responsible members of the House Republican conference. And there’s the rub.
The scandal wasn’t just a production to keep fringe Republicans busy and far removed from serious business. It was part of a propaganda campaign with institutional GOP support all the way up to the speaker of the House.
An October story in Politico quoted retired House Speaker John Boehner in a fit of candor. Freed from his party obligations, Boehner was unsparing in his denunciations of two of the IRS scandal’s biggest promoters – House Freedom Caucus leader Jim Jordan of Ohio and former Representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah.
As head of the House oversight committee, Chaffetz had tirelessly flogged the IRS scandal. Boehner called him a “total phony.” Boehner described Jordan in more incendiary terms, calling the champion of government shutdowns, budget showboating and governing chaos a “legislative terrorist.”
Both men earned their labels. Yet the gutter tactics that brought each to prominence were championed by Boehner himself. He invested Chaffetz and California Representative Darrell Issa with vast investigative powers, and then indulged the falsehoods and character assassination in which they trafficked. He mounted a Benghazi extravaganza that had more theatrical lives than "Cats."
In a 2013 press conference, Boehner expressed fury over the scandal at the IRS. Not because it was a partisan charade costing taxpayers tens of millions of dollars and countless hours of government employee make-work. Boehner, like Brady, was enraged that no scapegoat was taking the rap.
"Now, my question isn't about who's going to resign,” said the highest-ranking Republican in Washington. “My question is who's going to jail over this scandal?"
So, yes, it was heartening to hear Boehner confirm the truth about his former colleagues. But the next time the former speaker organizes a charity golf outing, perhaps he can apply the proceeds to Lois Lerner's legal bills.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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