Even Former FEC Commissioners Don't Understand How the Commission Got Ensared in the "IRS Scandal"

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Aug. 9 2013 9:42 AM

Even Former FEC Commissioners Don't Understand How the Commission Got Ensared in the "IRS Scandal"

My latest piece is an addition to the sad genre of "explaining why the new Darrell Issa-led scandal investigation will peter out." This time, Issa and Dave Camp are asking for five+ years of communication between the FEC and IRS, to prove that the election watchdog wasn't TARGETING CONSERVATIVES -- by, you know, letting staffers ask the IRS if some group running political ads had tax exempt status yet.

This level of scrutiny, with this much evidence, is a puzzle to some former FEC commissioners. “From what I've seen so far this doesn't look like anything,” said Larry Noble, a Democratic appointee until 2000 who now advocates for public funding of elections. “It looked like what happened was that the staff contacted the IRS and asked for what was public. When I was there, certainly, it was always clear that the IRS would not give out anything that was not public. The IRS has a list of c3 groups, but it's often out of date, so people check with the source. This looked like a routine inquiry for public information.”
Bradley Smith, a Republican FEC commissioner from 2000 to 2005, was nearly as skeptical as Noble. “I don’t think these emails are damning in any great way,” he said, “but they do raise a question. That’s whether the staff at the FEC can be legally, lawfully making these kinds of inquiries without commission approval. Leaving that aside, I don't think anything that's emerged so far is damning as regards the larger IRS scandal.”

The beauty of this scandal is that it assumes there's a Constitutional right to win tax exemption for a group that's mostly just running attack ads. Republicans want the FEC to do as little as possible on enforcement, which isn't a secret, but inside the organization they've failed to push that agenda. So here comes the pressure from outside.

David Weigel, a former Slate politics reporter, is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

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