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6 Key Takeaways From the Stupidity and Reality of IRS 'Scandal'

The maddening episode reveals how Washington works.

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Media coverage of this scandal has had the wrong starting line. It wasn’t the IRS that deluged its staff with thousands of applications from political groups pretending to be charities. It was groups following the advice or example of campaign consultants such as Karl Rove. He was the first to use this ruse on a large scale in order to run a shadow presidential campaign where he could hide his donors’ identities.

The way this works is simple. After the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling deregulated campaign finances, political operators looked for ambiguities to exploit and turned to non-profit tax law—knowing the agency's primary focus has nothing to do with electioneering. One of the legal ambiguities is the fiction that "public education" and "lobbying" activities by non-profits groups are not political (and thus subject to election law) if they comprise more than 50 percent of that group’s activities.

So that’s what Karl Rove ginned up with his non-profit Crossroads GPS, which spent $123 million for the 2012 federal elections, according to the Sunlight Foundation, with 70 percent raised from secret donors. The IRS still has not issued a ruling on whether Rove’s group violated non-profit tax law.

5. The IRS’s top GOP critics were elected this way. Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey might be the GOP frontman on federal gun controls, but on this issue he has compared the IRS scrutiny to President Richard Nixon’s infamous enemies list. Of course, two political non-profits, Rove’s Crossroads GPS and the Republican Jewish Coalition spent $17.6 million on his behalf by the time Election Day rolled around last fall. He’s hardly the only member of Congress whose rise to power was helped by political front groups masquerading as tax-exempt charities.

One of the unwritten but enduring Washington rules is that both political parties will not tinker with the tactics that helped them gain power—because they mastered the system to get elected. But that is not even the biggest GOP hypocrisy surrounding this "scandal."

6. Lies are so big they hide in plain sight. The party known for voter suppression and intimidation now feels targeted? The spectacle of Republicans protesting that its groups were targeted by the IRS, when the only business of some of these groups was to lead the GOP’s 2012 voter suppression efforts, is just unbelievable. The GOP has spent years trying to discourage and suppress voting blocks that it perceives will back Democrats, such as black and brown voters, and students. Its entire "voter fraud" canard is based on policing the polls in myriad ways targeting millions of voters. 

But now the GOP is upset—with Speaker of the House John Boehner saying he wants the guilty put in jail—because groups like True The Vote were not given the same tax status as the Girl Scouts? They have spent years in state after state imposing tougher ID laws, criminalizing voter registration drives, curtailing early voting, and on and on.

There are so many reasons why this "scandal" reflects what’s really wrong in our political culture. But watching it unfold literally is like watching the blind leading the blind—and the rest of us have to live with the results of these political subterfuges. This scandal is about the perpetuation of lies and deceits in modern campaigns and politics. Meanwhile, the solution, more transparency and disclosure, is going nowhere.

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's retirement crisis, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).