Four Washington Scandals That Still Matter Despite the Distractions

They're still there, festering


three more years
White House

President Obama's attempt to lead the United States into an intervention in Syria may have provided the White House a distraction from the summer of scandal, but they're still there, festering. As the president waddles toward lame duck status, the various scandals will increasingly come to shape Obama's second term. Scandals like the NSA revelation have already forced the president to address the issues on other than his terms. His decision to go to Congress for authorization on Syria stands in stark contrast to the last time the U.S. intervened in a civil war in the region, in Libya in 2011. Back then, the president didn't seek Congressional authorization and Congress didn't do much about that. This time, though Obama insisted he didn't need Congress' OK, some members of Congress put up much more resistance to the idea of Congress as a rubber stamp for the president. The exercise could have the unintended consequence of making Congress more aggressive in confronting the different scandals. Here are four ongoing clouds hovering over the president:

1. NSA surveillance

spirit of '84?

As referenced above, ever since the first Edward Snowden disclosures back in May, Obama has been on the defensive on the issue of domestic surveillance. Often, the president's statements have turned out to be untrue or deceptive when new revelations come out. And four months after the first ones, they continue, with effects both domestically and abroad. In July, the House voted on an effort to defund the NSA's illegal domestic activities, the Amash Amendment. It failed by a remarkably small margin of seven votes. Recent revelations about NSA spying on the Brazilian president, meanwhile, led to that country's President Dilma Rousseff canceling her state visit to the White House. The controversy could push Brazil to drift toward the more anti-American bloc of countries in Latin America. Obama's response to Brazil's concerns was, essentially, that these things come out in the newspapers and then he has to figure out what's actually happening. It's not just Brazil. Mexico wants answers about alleged spying on its president, too. In Germany, American spying is a major campaign issue in the forthcoming elections. In Vienna, some residents suspect a local villa is actually an NSA listening post. Will Congress stay focused on the NSA? James Clapper, Obama's director of national intelligence, thinks so, saying he believes Congress will curb or even shut down the NSA's domestic surveillance efforts. Earlier this week, House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte said he believed "further protections" were necessary to ensure Americans' civil liberties weren't violated and that he wanted "robust oversight," which could still mean not much will change.

2. IRS targeting

plead the fifth

When news about the NSA's domestic surveillance efforts first broke, the White House was already embroiled in a scandal involving the IRS targeting Tea Party groups. Here, too, President Obama addressed the scandal based on news reports, saying he only learned about the "alleged" improprieties when the rest of America did. And here, too, the president's words are revealed to be less than true as more information comes out. A recent report by the House Oversight & Government Reform  Committee, which continues to investigate the scandal, quotes two IRS officials who described a climate at the bureau in 2010 as one where employees were "acutely" aware that the president wanted a crackdown on Tea Party groups. Last week the House Ways & Means Committee uncovered e-mails from Lois Lerner (the IRS official who pled the fifth in a hearing on the scandal earlier this year) that appear to contradict the official story on the scandal. When the story first broke, Lerner, like the president, said she learned about it in the news. But the e-mails show Lerner and other IRS officials in Washington discussing the targeting, which they called "very dangerous," back in 2011.

3. Benghazi cover-up

four dead
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The Friday in May, just before the NSA story broke, when President Obama addressed the then-breaking story about the IRS scandal, he also took the time to call hearings that had just been held on Benghazi a "side show." The Obama Administration has tried to obfuscate the issues surrounding the attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi on September 11, 2012 since they happened. In the immediate aftermath, Obama and his underlings insisted the attack was part of anti-American demonstrations ignited by the trailer for an anti-Muslim film that had been on YouTube for months. When whistleblowers came forward to say nobody on the ground thought the Benghazi attack was related to regional demonstrations, Hillary Clinton infamously asked what difference, at this point, that made. Yet the ongoing cover-up over Benghazi (one CIA employee was reportedly suspended for refusing to sign a non-disclosure agreement about the incident, a senior State Department official claimed reassignments amounted to punishments of the officials involved,  a House report found the State Department's investigation inadequate and not independent) is illustrative of the Obama Administration's, and the overall government's, discomfort with transparency and the truth. In calling the Benghazi scandal a "side show," Obama hoped the media would follow his campaign slogan: move forward. But who knew what when, and who covered up what, remains relevant. And so House Republicans remain focused on the issue. Congressional hearings this week spotlighted the State Department's internal review of failures surrounding the Benghazi attack, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may be called to testify. Despite her insistence it doesn't matter anymore, the scandal could yet haunt her all the way to the 2016 election season.

4. No budget

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The last time the federal government operated under an actual budget passed by Congress and signed by the president was in 2009. Even when Democrats controlled both the House and the Senate, they were unable to produce a budget in 2010. It took more than three years for the Democrat-controlled Senate to pass another budget measure, this March, which didn't lead to a passed budget. Instead, the federal government has been operating under a series of short-term resolutions. Yet Democrats continue to blame Republicans exclusively for this failure to act. With another threat of a government shutdown looming at the end of the month, when the fiscal year and the latest-short term measure expires, Obama and his supporters are back at it. They're laying the culpability squarely with Republicans, when even the president's own proposed budget (which could be, and is, a virtual non-starter) was two months late this year and planned to add $5.2 trillion to deficits over the next decade. The federal government has run trillion dollar deficits from fiscal year 2009 through 2012 (xls link). In part due to the effects of sequestration, this year's deficit is projected to be $642 billion. The U.S. is set to hit its debt limit again this October, ahead of when the Treasury Department projected. The government continues to spend far more than it brings in in revenue and Congress is expending its energy on yet another continuing resolution.