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Don't let scandal grind policy to a halt

Published 05/16/2013 12:00 AM
Updated 05/15/2013 11:47 PM

The nation cannot afford to have the scandals swirling around the Obama administration stagnate an already sluggish Congress. There is no doubt the controversies will make it more difficult for President Obama to find Republican partners to pass bipartisan legislation.

We urge Republican lawmakers to resist the temptation to turn their attention to the 2014 congressional elections and make the political calculation not to hand the wounded president any policy victories in the meantime. Such a strategy might make political sense, but it would not be good for the country.

The economy appears poised to finally take off; what is lacking is confidence in the ability of Washington to function. The Congressional Budget Office projects the deficit is shrinking quicker than anticipated, now expected to settle at $642 billion for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, a vast improvement over the prior year's $1.087 trillion shortfall. The CBO report provides the opportunity for Congress to meet short-term needs that will boost the economy, such as investment in infrastructure, while reaching a compromise with the White House on the tax, Medicare and Social Security reforms necessary to address still ominous long-term deficit projections. This is too important to let political maneuvering get in the way.

It would also be unfortunate, as well, if a compromise on immigration reform, which appears close, becomes a victim of heightened partisanship tied to the scandals.

And they are scandals.

For his part President Obama needs to get a grip. The president has tried to distance himself from the IRS malfeasance by dismissing it as "an independent agency." That's not leadership. IRS falls under the Treasury Department. The president appoints both the treasury secretary and commissioner of the IRS. President Obama said he was as surprised as anyone to learn of the scandal in which conservative groups seeking special tax status were subjected to greater IRS scrutiny and foot-dragging. It was, said the president, outrageous and unacceptable.

If it did indeed come as a surprise to the president, that's a problem. Republican lawmakers had complained that tea party and like-minded groups were being given a hard time. Democratic lawmakers, meanwhile, were pressuring the IRS not to let any dubious applications from right-wing groups win approval. Why was there no curiosity from the White House as to how the taxing agency was dealing with this conundrum? When it did become apparent the IRS had improperly targeted conservative groups, no one at the IRS considered it necessary to inform the president?

Rather than run from accountability, President Obama needs to make a Trumanesque declaration that the "buck stops here." The investigation announced by Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. is in order. Investigatory committees in the House and Senate need to get to the truth. The inspector general who uncovered the misconduct could not determine who was involved in creating the criteria for targeting conservative groups. That question needs answering.

The other recent scandal may be more troubling because the administration acknowledges no wrongdoing. Ostensibly to find the source of a security leak to a news agency, the Justice Department culled through the phone records of reporters and editors at The Associated Press in April and May 2012, including its bureau in Hartford. The search targeted more than 20 phone lines in offices in which more than 100 journalists work.

That's a fishing expedition, not a search. When government officials fear Big Brother may be watching, it endangers the ability of journalists to work with sources within government to get at the truth. Perhaps that's the real motivation behind this outrageous intrusion on First Amendment rights.

Congressional committees also need to take a hard look at this apparent abuse of authority.

But while the coming investigations are sure to present a captivating sideshow, Washington needs to keep functioning or, perhaps more accurately, start functioning. The American people deserve answers, but they also deserve a government that can work while it is getting them.

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