Manufacturing controversy

02:15, May 24 2013

After 2012's hectic electioneering, the following fiscal cliff chicken, sequester self-sabotage, gun control impotence and endless back-and-forth on an immigration bill, it seemed of late that American politics had entered the doldrums.

When Congress, frustrated at sequester-related airport delays, diverted funds set aside for the FAA for future airport improvement in America to end furloughs for airport staff, no one really batted an eyelid.

It was a dick move: selfish, shortsighted. But everyone expected as much. It's a pretty rare political situation in America. Washington DC can't actually be disappointing if no one expects anything from the government. It is just a really bad TV show - where if you forget that it is actually reality programming of old, out-of-touch, ideologues gambling with the future prosperity of a nation of 300 million people - you can tune out happily.

But it's also created a situation where it is nearly impossible to score points by making your opponent look bad if no one's estimations can sink any lower. It leaves both media and politician at a loss, because I'm pretty sure no one cares anymore. We're all too heartbroken.

Which is why these past weeks we've had a lot of politicians trying double, extra, super hard to wring scandal and controversy from IRS and Benghazi drama.

Hot tip: If you have to tagline something with the word "scandal" every time it is mentioned, anywhere, you've made me immediately suspicious.


Two weeks ago, an IRS official confessed that staffers in an office in Cincinnati had singled out certain applications for tax exempt status, by looking for outfits with names like "Tea Party" or "Patriot" in the name, or for those who had Tea Party-like aims. They then took their inquisitions a bit past where they should have, asking about members, donors, employee lists and public statements.

It is a bit silly - and yes, wrong - that this happened. But all that really happened was tax profiling. The 501(c)(4) tax laws are ripe for abuse. It is supposed to be for social welfare groups. But through loopholes, these groups can be political if it is not their primary purpose and these groups don't have to disclose any of their donor information. And when the Tea Party exploded, applications about doubled in two years.

So what happened, was in essence, tax profiling. Auditing is a labour intensive and expensive process. You want to audit groups of people with the highest chance of finding error. For instance, an individual earning more than one million dollars in America is between 12 and 50 times more likely to get audited than I am.

It is funny to see the same conservatives who are so for profiling at airports, act with such revulsion at it happening to them.

This IRS story shows that profiling of all types is silly and inefficient, as has been pointed out. But past that, this is a tale of operational incompetence, which has been addressed, not political corruption, which is being suggested. The IRS commissioner at the time was a Bush-era appointment. Obama has no window to influence things like this, nor does he have reason to. He gains nothing from it. It is not like it dented any Tea Party momentum.

So yeah, nothing really to see here, move on. Next, please.

We've also had last year's attack on the US compound in Benghazi trotted back out intermittently of late as diplomats working there at the time have come before Congressional committee to testify.

But as testimony has been provided there has been little steak behind any sizzle. A lot of weight is being put behind why President Obama didn't immediately refer to the attack as terrorism (the answer - he did, almost immediately, but wasn't equivocal). There's debate whether the attack was pre-planned, not impromptu, whether it was in response to the anti-Muslim video that had gone viral or planned just for the good old-fashioned anti-America fun of it (it seems that it is some of a lot of these factors, an impromptu attack that happened to involve extremists). Requests for extra-security were turned down before the attack, but these were mostly for the embassy in Tripoli, not the diplomatic compound in Benghazi. It is unlikely that military assistance, which was hours away, would have made a lick of difference. There's been a lot of talk about the development of internal talking points and who said what to whom and when, but no substantive change to the narrative.  

These political attacks are slightly worse than Romney's unsuccessful campaign assaults, but only because they're coming from US diplomats. They're adding nothing substantive to the debate itself.

So yeah, okay, got it, next.

I'm amused on a couple of grounds. These two stories, fuelled by unending rhetorical flatulence, have taken center stage over the knowledge that the US Department of Justice seized phone records of Associated Press journalists to try and deduce who had leaked information about a foiled terror attack and that they had a Fox News investigative reporter followed. And it admitted and defended that practice. But stuck behind a veil of secrecy, there's not that much to report on. It is a pretty chilling story. 

Also, there's the fact that after all the wailing and the gnashing of teeth the public opinion of Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton was not dented a single iota.

So really, we've stomached all of this talk, posturing, grandstanding, whining and trumped up reporting for what? To end up back at square one?

Well, maybe the Republicans might hate the Democrats a little bit more than a month ago... and vice versa. Which is just what we need, right?

American politics is a metaphorical anomaly: there're fires everywhere, but no smoke, and then a whole load of smoke elsewhere, with no fire to be found anywhere.

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