Blow, Nocera and Collins

In “Resonance Resistant” Mr. Blow says that Republicans miss another chance to honestly engage the public as they race off the cliff in the supercharged outrage machine.  Joe Nocera shrieks that “Energy Exports Are Good!”  But he has a question:  Why is the Dow Chemical Company lobbying to keep a lid on them?  Apparently he’s as big a fan of fracking as he is of the Keystone pipeline.  (Well, as long as the shit doesn’t end up on his block, I guess…)  Ms. Collins, in “Hard of Hearings,” says don’t worry, people. If you missed the heated hearing on the I.R.S. held by the House Ways and Means Committee on Friday, she has a complete rundown.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Whether one thinks the demiscandals being howled about in Washington should or should not resonate more widely, they don’t.

According to a Gallup report released Thursday, “The amount of attention Americans are paying to the I.R.S. and the Benghazi situations is well below the average for news stories Gallup has tracked over the years.” (The Associated Press phone records case wasn’t mentioned.) Why might this be? I have a few theories:

CREDIBILITY People know that the Internal Revenue Service is the conservatives’ bogeyman. It’s the agency that collects the taxes that Republicans hate so much. Some Americans see taxes as, at worst, a necessary nuisance; Republicans see them as an absolute evil. The I.R.S. is the agency that collects the wealth from “us” for the government to redistribute to “them.” As National Journal pointed out Friday, “The agency also implements much of the country’s social policy through the tax code.” We all know that anything with “social” in its name activates the conservative gag reflex.

And on the Associated Press front, it just doesn’t ring true to have Republicans standing up as defenders of the “lame-stream media.” It’s like the person with the club feigning common cause with the baby seal. People just don’t buy it.

Furthermore, Republicans have exhibited a near-pathological need to say anything, no matter how outlandish, that would invalidate the Obama presidency. This has left them with little credibility now that there may be legitimate problems. This is the story of the political party that cried “Kenyan.”

COMPLEXITY Where is Benghazi? Seriously, folks, quickly point it out on a map. Thought so. Now, to the controversy: the talking points — what they said, and the machination of how that was altered, and whether Al Qaeda should have been immediately blamed, and whether the word “terror” should have had an “-ist” or an “-ism.” Seeking to find the killers of four dead Americans is honorable; endless testimony about a fussed-over script used to explain the tragedy is mind-numbing.

UNPOPULARITY It is clear that the Justice Department overreached on the Associated Press scandal and that its strong-arm tactics are likely to have a chilling effect. But Americans are not big fans of mass media. A November Gallup poll found that only a fourth of Americans rate the honesty and ethical standards of journalists highly. Even bankers ranked higher.

As for Tea Party groups that received extra scrutiny from the I.R.S., an Associated Press-GfK poll released last month found that fewer than a fourth of Americans say they support the group. The Tea Party may well be passé.

The policy issue is a different story, as The Washington Post pointed out this week: “In 2010, the Supreme Court’s landmark ‘Citizens United’ decision cleared the way for corporations and labor unions to raise and spend unlimited sums of money, and register for tax-exempt status under section 501(c)(4).”

That decision was extremely unpopular. An ABC News/Washington Post poll released nearly a month after the decision was handed down found that 80 percent of Americans opposed it.

So an unpopular movement applied for tax-exempt status under conditions made possible by an unpopular court decision, in order to influence politics with unfathomable amounts money from unnamed donors? Good luck gaining sympathy for that.

ZEALOTRY The Congressional Tea Party Caucus founder, Michele Bachmann, who never misses a chance to say something asinine, suggested to the conservative site that it was “reasonable” to worry that the I.R.S. might use Obamacare to kill conservatives.

The article reads, in part:

“Since the I.R.S. also is the chief enforcer of Obamacare requirements, she asked whether the I.R.S.’s admission means it ‘will deny or delay access to health care’ for conservatives. At this point, she said, that ‘is a reasonable question to ask.’ ”

“Reasonable” and “Bachmann” don’t even belong in the same conversation, let alone the same sentence, and yet she remains one of the most visible spokeswomen for the movement.

Even former House Speaker Newt Gingrich warned Republicans against overreaching. In an NPR interview that aired Friday, Gingrich, referring to the impeachment of President Clinton, said, “I think we overreached in ’98 — how’s that for a quote you can use?”

He continued, advising his party to be “calm and factual.” Ha! That’s too rich, and too late. Republicans are already invoking the I-word.

Republicans are their own worst enemies at times like these, unable to leave well-enough alone, and missing chances to honestly engage the public as they race off the cliff in the supercharged outrage machine.

Well, if you have nothing to offer that the country wants, just howl louder…  Here’s Mr. Nocera’s love song to the energy industry:

What first caught my eye was the op-ed article in The Wall Street Journal. Published in late February, it was written by Andrew N. Liveris, the chairman and chief executive of the Dow Chemical Company. Liveris, an Australian, has become quite the Washington player in recent years. Among other things, he heads President Obama’s efforts to revive manufacturing.

The op-ed was about one of my favorite subjects: the abundance of natural gas reserves discovered in the United States since the “fracking” revolution began. This newly found gas, Liveris wrote, offered “a historic opportunity to strengthen the economy, increase national competitiveness and create jobs.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Within a few paragraphs, however, the Liveris article took on a Pravda-like quality: a political insider sending a coded message to other insiders. He wrote, for instance, that the new jobs the natural gas boom was expected to create would depend on an “affordable” and “plentiful” supply. Given that that’s exactly what we currently have, what was the real subtext?

Then it became clear: Liveris’s plan for ensuring cheap domestic gas was — are you ready for this? — limiting exports. An export market driven by, you know, supply and demand was described as “unchecked.” What was left unsaid was that if natural gas could not be exported, the resulting oversupply would depress prices — and boost Dow’s profits.

Finally, Liveris acknowledged that Dow owned 15 percent of a proposed facility in Texas, which was causing “advocates of unchecked exports” to “attack” the company for being in a position to profit from exports while publicly opposing them. But, he insisted, Dow would not make a profit. Hmmm.

I bring all this up because on Friday, the Department of Energy, after a two-year hiatus, granted a permit to a facility called Freeport LNG, which will allow it to export liquefied natural gas to countries with which we do not have free-trade agreements.

Originally built to import natural gas, the plant will cost as much as $11 billion to retrofit and take years to complete. It will export only a tiny fraction of the natural gas that is consumed by Americans. And wouldn’t you know it? This is the facility in which a Dow Chemical limited partnership holds a 15 percent stake.

Exporting natural gas has enormous benefits for the United States. Exports create jobs that are every bit as good as manufacturing jobs. They help our trade deficit. They tie us closer to important allies like Japan, which desperately need the gas. According to Michael Levi, the author of an authoritative new book, “The Power Surge: Energy, Opportunity, and the Battle for America’s Future,” the prospect that America could export natural gas has even helped our European allies gain leverage with its primary supplier of fossil fuels, Russia.

“Most studies suggest that the main impact of exports will be to increase U.S. production rather than take away other uses,” Levi says. Thus, it will not likely have a major effect on the price of gas. Levi told me that one legitimate fear is that the additional drilling could increase the potential environmental risks posed by fracking. But the answer is to ensure that wells are drilled in an environmentally safe manner. That is true whether we export gas or not.

And what does Dow Chemical say now that “its” facility has been approved? I spent much of Friday afternoon peppering the company with questions, most of them revolving around Dow’s seeming hypocrisy in opposing “unfettered” exports while owning a big chunk of a facility that would someday be shipping natural gas to Japan.

Finally, more or less in exasperation, a Dow spokesman put Liveris on the phone. The Dow chairman pointed out that when the company originally invested in Freeport LNG, the facility was meant to import gas rather than export it. He said that the company won’t make money because its stake will be so diluted once capital is raised for the retrofitting. He insisted that he is a believer in market forces, but that the natural gas market is so different from other commodities that it must be treated differently.

He also said, though, that the company was not opposed to natural gas exports — just so long as it was limited.

Earlier, a Dow spokesman had sent out a press release claiming that the permit approval by the Department of Energy was actually a victory for Dow’s position. To put it in words that the press representative would never use, so long as the Department of Energy permitting process is so absurdly slow — thus creating a government bottleneck that restrains “unfettered” exports — Dow and Liveris have gotten exactly what they’ve been seeking: limited exports and plenty of cheap domestic gas to help fuel their profits.

There is a technical term for this. It’s called “having your cake and eating it, too.”

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

Before Congress is finished with the Internal Revenue Service, there’s a serious danger some of us are going to wind up feeling sorry for the auditors.

And, honestly, that is not the way we were planning on spending the spring. Especially since it appears that there are people making decisions at the I.R.S. who have the intelligence of a wet Frisbee.

But, so far, the Congressional hearings of outrage have been even less sympathetic. Perhaps you didn’t have time to spend much of your Friday watching the House Ways and Means Committee grill Steven Miller, the newly axed I.R.S. head, about the agency’s targeting of groups with names like “Tea Party” for unwelcome in-depth attention.

Let me summarize:

Committee Chairman Dave Camp: Thank you all for coming here today. Our topic is abuses in the Internal Revenue Service, an entity that I believe is about the size of China, with long, spiky tentacles that reach out and squash all the hopes and dreams of the American people. My first question, Mr. Miller, is whether your agency is so enormous and evil that it will one day destroy the nation as we know it, or whether it already has, and this committee is actually just sitting on the scattered shards and rubble of what once was a great republic.

Steven Miller: Thank you for inviting me here today. I would like to begin by apologizing for mistakes that have been made. Now I am prepared to begin answering your questions, and then gradually fade into sullen exhaustion.

Sander Levin, Ranking Democrat: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for organizing this bipartisan outpouring of rage. I would like to begin by welcoming Inspector General J. Russell George, and asking him to repeat his conclusion that none of the bad things we’re discussing were the result of partisan pressure. Possibly he could say that twice. Then I would like to ask him to confirm that he was appointed by George W. Bush. And then to point out that the guy who was in charge of the I.R.S. when all this happened was also appointed by George W. Bush.

Representative Devin Nunes, Republican of California: Mr. Miller, how would you like it if we were to subpoena your e-mails and phone calls and records of anyone you’ve met with over the last four years? Also, have you ever had any contact with the Obama re-election campaign?

Mr. Miller: I would just like to say in my defense that the I.R.S. provided horrible customer service.

Representative Dave Reichert, Republican of Washington: What the I.R.S. did was inexcusable. Also, I want to register my strong protests about the way Mr. Miller keeps interrupting me while I am demanding that he answer my questions.

And then everybody went home for the weekend.

What are we going to do about the I.R.S.? Some of its workers made wildly inappropriate judgments and some of its top brass appears to have the spunk of a pillow. Congress is demanding that heads roll, but the inspector general says that, so far, there’s no evidence of political pressure, just ineptitude. There is literally only one person in the entire operation who’s not covered by civil service, so I wouldn’t expect a purge. Miller, in his testimony, said that, so far, one employee has been relocated in punishment for his or her role in the case. The American people cry out for blood and they get a transfer.

But here’s where the sympathy comes in. The I.R.S. employees were stuck with a pile of 70,000 applications for the tax-exempt status that’s awarded to organizations engaged in social welfare issues. Recently, political groups have been gaming the system, announcing they’re just do-gooders with a minor political sideline in order to qualify. When they succeed, they get to keep their donors secret. The rules for who qualifies are murky, and, according to Miller, only about 150 to 200 people were making the decisions about who got further scrutiny.

Also, they were working at the Determinations Unit of the Rulings and Agreements Office of the Exempt Organizations Division of the Internal Revenue Service. Spending their lives trying to clarify the 501(c)(4) status. You try that for a while and see how you like it.

If Congress wanted to help, the members could simplify the law so I.R.S. minions aren’t trying to figure out which groups spend only 49 percent of their resources on politics as opposed to 51 percent.

Or, they could give the I.R.S. more money to do the job it’s stuck with now. The budget has been cut almost $1 billion over the last few years, while its duties have expanded. Next Friday, I.R.S. workers will enjoy the first of a series of unpaid furloughs thanks to that sequester.

Or Congress could just keep holding committee hearings in hopes that investigators will finally discover that the I.R.S. offices in Cincinnati are actually controlled by a pack of left-wing operatives who are not only Obamaphiles but also vampires. Vampires who had no respect for the laws regarding 501(c)(4) status.


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