At a time when Congress can’t pass a budget and the president can’t win approval of any important legislation, the public is indignant about the threat of an overreaching, all-powerful federal government that uses the IRS and the Justice Department to harass its enemies.
President Obama hasn’t begun to fix the big problem of Washington dysfunction, but he moved Wednesday to respond to public anger and reposition his sinking administration. He fired the acting IRS commissioner, released a blizzard of e-mails on Benghazi and backed a shield law to protect journalists. It was fancy footwork in public-relations terms but not a reaction to what’s really ailing the federal government.
The crippling problem in Washington these days isn’t any organized conspiracy against conservatives, journalists or anyone else. Rather, it’s a federal establishment that’s increasingly paralyzed because of poor management and political second-guessing.
What should frighten the public is not the federal government’s monstrous power but its impotence.
Firing officials has its place in bringing accountability. What’s really needed, as these latest episodes show, is adult supervision of the bureaucracy. This requires senior officials who are properly sensitive to political issues. But such officials have become so afraid of seeming to meddle that mistakes happen.
Where was the senior manager who should have stopped IRS employees from writing outrageous questionnaires and search queries targeting “Patriots” and “We the People”? Perhaps that person was wading through congressional messages urging IRS investigations of tax-exempt political groups.
Where was the top Justice Department official who should have checked a runaway prosecutor from issuing an over-broad subpoena to the Associated Press? The attorney general recused himself because of fear of a perceived conflict of interest. Perhaps lower-level officials were chilled by congressional demands for leak investigations — and insinuations the administration was itself the guilty party.
The principal activity of the federal government these days is investigating itself. No panel is bipartisan and independent enough to escape the charge that it is covering something up. This accusation has been leveled against the review panel on Benghazi headed by Tom Pickering, former undersecretary of state, and Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Good grief, if these two are part of a conspiracy, I’m moving to Moscow.
If you unpack the various scandals swirling around Washington this week, you find a common theme of bad decisions by government officials, compounded by finger-pointing and second-guessing from Congress. Here are some moments in this chain of error.
● The IRS investigations of tea party-related conservative groups that began in March 2010 came a couple of months after the Supreme Court in Citizens United opened the way for corporate contributions to political causes. Garance Franke-Ruta, in her blog for the Atlantic, has identified congressional pressure on the IRS to investigate conservative tax-exempt groups. The unit that was supposed to make such determinations (located in Cincinnati in part to keep it away from political pressure) made an intolerable mistake in searching for right-wing groups using political terms.
But the dragnet was hardly a secret: News reports appeared in 2012 about tea party complaints of harassment, at a time when some congressional Democrats were demanding that the IRS crack down harder. A grand jury can help unravel whether the IRS’s outrageous decisions amounted to criminal behavior.
● The Justice Department launched two special investigations of leaks in June after intense Republican criticism of intelligence disclosures. The probes focused on the sources for stories discussing the Stuxnet cyberattacks on Iran and a spy inside al-Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate.
Even a journalist can understand why officials get upset when such secrets are blown. But the GOP’s larger motivation was its suspicion (apparently wrong) that senior Obama administration officials had organized the leaks. The administration’s own leak obsession (fueled by fears of congressional criticism) led Justice Department officials to subpoena two months of records for more than 20 phones at the AP.
Why did Justice approve such a broad seizure when its own guidelines urge narrow use of reporters’ records? Perhaps it was an especially egregious leak, jeopardizing a British agent in place and infuriating the United States’ closest ally. We don’t know, because the administration has never properly explained its campaign against leaks — fearing political backlash.
● Finally, Benghazi, the scandal that keeps on giving: This one began in the fog of war, so it’s best to be cautious about assigning responsibility. But the administration did try from the beginning to spin the story to preserve its campaign theme that Obama had won the war on terror, and the GOP has been spinning it ever since, to the point that the blame game is beginning to chill operations in North Africa.
Another generation would have said: Let’s get on with it. We say, let’s have another investigation.