Lois Lerner, the IRS official in charge of the office processing 501(c)4 applications, plead her fifth amendment right against self-incrimination in declining to answer questions in a Congressional hearing earlier today. Her defense lawyer previously warned the committee she would plead the fifth, and Massachusetts Democrat Stephen Lynch warned that there'd be "hell to pay," possibly in the form of a special prosecutor, if IRS officials obstructed or refused to answer Congress' questions. (Follow Reason 24/7 on Twitter to follow the obstructions).
Yesterday, former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller suggested Obama appoint a special prosecutor on the IRS scandal and call Republicans' "bluff" in an exercise in the politicization of everything par excellence. Keller seems to be continuing to lead the way for the Times on that account. Keller manages to dismiss the other scandals in the recent "trifecta" (on Benghazi, spin's no big deal, on government's aggressive pursuit of leakers, chilling but not quite illegal) before dismissing Republicans as uninterested in "the truth" on the IRS scandal and suggesting Ken Starr (who was charged with investigating Whitewater) or Patrick Fitzgerald (who prosecuted Scooter Libby for leaking Valerie Plame's identity) for the role of special prosecutor. An independent investigation, Keller concludes, can determine whether IRS actions were criminal or dumb, and in the meantime "we [??] have some governing to do." The scandal for Keller, then, is a "distraction" from the "serious business" of government.
Aside from Keller's complete ignorance of how scandals work their way through the media, the attempt to sequester the IRS' actions from the broader debate on governance is highly disingenuous. The IRS scandal goes to the heart of questions about government and governance. As J.D. Tuccille explained yesterday, scandals like the one in which the IRS is embroiled point to a larger problem about the kind of vast power government wields when it "governs." And earlier this week, Peter Suderman rightly noted that the IRS used its power the way it deed for the simple reason that it could. Government apologists, meanwhile, defend the IRS' action by justifying the targeting of Tea Party groups (Keller himself scoffs at the notion conservative groups might be intimidated by the IRS action). They cheer the scrutiny of dissident groups for using the same kind of tax labels as Organizing for Action, which runs BarackObama.com, even as Democrats like Vermont's Peter Welch complain about the criticism 501(c)4s levy against members of Congress in political advertisements making their jobs harder. Special prosecutor or not, the IRS scandal ought to press issues like getting the IRS out of the speech business all together. "Congress created this [100-year-old bureaucratic] monster," freshman Republican Thomas Massie told his colleagues. It should make sure something like this "never happens again," something politicians seem quick to say in any occasion except the ones involving government abuse of power.