May 13, 2013

At a presser just now, Obama denounced reports that the IRS targeted conservative groups as “outrageous,” and said those responsible for it should be held “fully accountable.” Meanwhile, Dem Senator Joe Manchin has called the actions “unacceptable and un-American,” while GOP Senator Marco Rubio has called on the IRS commissioner to resign over the scandal, though Rubio might be disappointed to learn that the commissioner at the time — Douglas Shulman, a Bush appointee — has already left the administration.

All of this is understandable, because there are indications that the IRS scandal is worse than it first looked. The Washington Post details that the IRS didn’t just bring greater scrutiny to Tea Party groups, it brought a focus to organizations that “criticized how the country was run.” Ninety-seven of the 298 groups selected for special scrutiny had “tea party,” “patriot,” or “9/12” in their names.

Already, there are calls for investigations, resignations, and new legislation. At Slate, David Weigel reports that Ohio Republican Mike Turner has crafted a proposal — called the Taxpayer Non-Discrimination and Protection Act of 2013 — which would make it a crime for IRS employees to “discriminate against an individual or group on the basis of their protected rights, and expressly clarifies that political speech and political expression are protected rights.”

It should be said that the available evidence suggests this may have been less an effort to suppress dissent from conservatives, and more a clumsy attempt to deal with the larger number of 401(c)4 applications, and try to stem the broader tide of explicitly political groups that — nonetheless — are trying to claim tax exempt status. What’s more, the Post notes that the process was ended soon after it was revealed to higher-ranking officials.

But all of that said, an investigation of just what happened is needed, and at this point it’s likely.

If there’s a big question — aside from the details of what actually happened at the IRS — it’s over the degree to which this will join Benghazi as fodder for Republican scandal-mongering. The New York Times has noted the extent to which the IRS scandal may be about uniting “dispirited Republicans and their conservative political base.”

Everyone should want Congress to get to the bottom of why IRS employees decided to go this route in applying scrutiny. But given the rhetoric of Republicans, what’s most likely to happen is yet another scandal circus, meant to generate a new round of conservative outrage at President Obama. That’s too bad, because that will make it all but impossible for us to have the broader conservation that we need to have — over whether the 501(c)4 designation has been abused by political groups on both sides.

Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer at The American Prospect, where he writes a blog.