July 5, 2013

Between the ongoing debate over the National Security Agency’s internet surveillance program, the decisions at the Supreme Court and events abroad, the trio of “scandals” that struck the administration two months ago have fallen to the wayside. That includes the controversy at the Internal Revenue Service, where IRS employees were accused of specifically targeting conservative groups for increase scrutiny over applications for tax-exempt status. Despite widespread evidence this wasn’t politically motivated — as well as signs it may have been justified — Republicans have continued to hold the controversy up as an example of government overreach and “Nixonian” behavior from the Obama White House (which, as of this writing, has not been implicated in the scandal).

Today’s story from the New York Times on IRS “filtering” should be the final word on whether this was political targeting or a more mundane instance of mistakes and misjudgments from overworked bureaucrats. Of the nearly 200,000 applications for tax-exempt status the IRS received between 2010 and 2012, it flagged 22,000 for further review. Of those, just 296 came from partisan political groups. In other words, notes the Times, “most of the applications pulled aside for further scrutiny in those years had nothing to do with politics, conservative or liberal, just as most of the red flags thrown up by the I.R.S.’s lookout lists were not overtly political.”

What were some of the other groups flagged by the IRS? “Medical marijuana purveyors, organizations formed to carry out President Obama’s health care law, and open source software developers who create software tools for computer code writers and distribute them free of charge.” Unless Republicans can prove that the White House has it out for open-source developers as well as tea party activists, it’s hard to see how they continue to stand by their claims.

Which isn’t to say that they won’t. In a recent story, National Journal quotes a GOP strategist who declared that the scandal “will have staying power, and it will be used—and it should be—in political campaigns.” Likewise, there’s this from the National Republican Congressional Committee:

“The scandal has legs,” said NRCC Communications Director Andrea Bozek. And with multiple investigations ongoing in the Congress, it has the “potential to make more news,” she said, and put more “smiles on Republican operatives’ faces.”

This is all a way of saying that, a year from now, we should expect Republicans to run hard on the IRS controversy in elections across the country, even as proof accumulates that this “scandal” isn’t very political at all.

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