Is Ernie Istook really J. Edgar Hoover reincarnated?
    Maybe not

It was probably just a Mistook.

That the current leadership of the Congressional Republican party is rather thuggish seems to me to be one of those claims that, while largely true, are hard to make politically potent. Most of the things that lead me to believe it aren’t easily explained to a median-IQ, low-political-attention voter in a headline.

So I’m happy when some relatively minor issue comes along that symbolizes the larger issue. Most of political persuasion consists of creating and developing such issues.

And, as Ronald Reagan famously demonstrated with the “welfare queen” and the food-stamp recipient who purchased an orange with his food stamps and a bottle of vodka with the change, the actual factual basis of the matter being used as synecdoche is pretty much irrelevant to its success.

But most of my liberal friends think that Reagan, and his admirers, were wrong to believe that misrepresenting reality, even to illustrate points you believe are true, is morally neutral or even praiseworthy. A good person, we think, will refuse to use a bad argument even in a good cause, and will be willing to object when his allies do so, even though that will give aid and comfort to his political opponents.

That’s the uncomfortable position in which I now find myself. I’ve been reading with glee Josh Marshall’s account of Rep. Istook’s attempt to sneak in to law a provision that would have given him and his staff unlimited access to the tax files of any taxpayer. Chuck Schumer’s attack on Istook, and on the process by which he was able to insert the provision at midnight and get it voted on before anyone knew what it was, and Nancy Pelosi’s reference to a “taxpayer persecution amendment,” struck me as just the way the Democrats ought to be talking at the current historical moment.

Alas, I just read David Rosenbaum’s story in this morning’s New York Times. The story provided in annoying detail what I assumed was the usual Republican lying response to having been caught with their fingers in the cookie jar.

But then it struck me that the explanation — far too complicated to be an effective political response — was very likely true.

Part of the job of the Appropriations Committees is to provide oversight for the agencies to whom they appropriate money. A major oversight question about the IRS is how it picks returns to audit. The laws about disclosure of taxpayer information are extremely tight, and the criminal penalties for violations are severe. That’s as it should be.

But it’s easy to imagine that some questions that might be required for effective oversight would involve what is technically “taxpayer information,” and that the provision in question reflected no more than a sloppily drafted workaround for that problem. (I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the claim that the drafting was done by the IRS were true, though the IRS Commissioner denies it.)

Again, the Republicans figured out quickly that they couldn’t really get away with what they’d done, and are now backing off fast and pointing fingers at one another. I don’t see any reason to help them escape the embarrassment they’ve earned, even if in this case it was earned by stupidity rather than by contempt for civil liberty.

But I’m now convinced, or mostly convinced, that this really was a dumb move rather than a tyrannical one.

Just to be clear: I don’t want to suggest at all that there’s been any bad faith on the Democratic side: Marshall and Schumer were simply taking the matter at face value, and the face was obviously a very ugly one.

But this may be one of the rare cases where ugly, too, is only skin deep.

Update A reader points out that Istook and his colleagues have been lying all over the place as they point fingers at one another, which is clearly true: Istook said that the provision wouldn’t have allowed access to individual tax returns, which is exactly what it would have done. Moreover, my reader points out that Istook has been involved in earlier efforts to persecute liberal-leading tax-exempt groups and might well have been hoping to get back-door administrative access to their IRS filings.

That’s certainly a possible theory. But my money would still be on stupidity as the explanation.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: