As Scandal Week comes to a close, it's worth reviewing the policy proposals that have followed in the revelations' wake. There … aren't many. We looked at each of the week's three scandals, such as they are, assessing what could possibly be done as a function of public policy, and then what policies have been proposed.
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The scandal: Benghazi
Is it a scandal? No, according to us.
What could be done: The attack in Benghazi prompts two questions. Could it have been prevented through better intelligence? And: Could the attack itself have been repelled? (There are, perhaps, other questions depending on your acceptance of the apparent development of the post-attack talking points.)
Answering the first question means increasing or strengthening intelligence capabilities, probably by expanding CIA capabilities in remote locations. Of course, the Benghazi compound was largely a CIA facility anyway, so it's not clear how much more access to intelligence they might have needed. Clearly, something failed.
Better security may have been more effective. Despite what Dick Cheney says, it's unlikely that any specially trained troops stationed elsewhere could have been brought in fast enough to rescue the people in the facility. There could have been more security on-site, but a proposal to bolster security was rejected, twice, by Ambassador Stevens himself.
What's been proposed: In March, before Benghazi was talked about as a scandal by anyone but hardened opponents of the president, the House Appropriations Committee approved over $2 billion in funding to improve security in remote facilities. That money included $950 million for increased protection measures and $1.4 billion intended to fortify embassy installations. The measure was signed into law.
The month prior, the Senate passed a slightly different measure, which would shift unused money from the war in Iraq to fund the desired improvements. It was not taken up in the House, prompting the president to yesterday again call for its passage.
Rep. Frank Wolf of Virginia also proposed creating a select committee to investigate the attacks. The proposal doesn't appear to have made it out of the Rules Committee.
The scandal: IRS singling out Tea Party groups
Is it a scandal? Yes, according to a wide variety of people
What could be done: The designation of groups with names including terms like "Tea Party," "Patriots," or "9/12" for extra scrutiny is already a violation of IRS policy. During testimony on Capitol Hill today, the Treasury Department's Inspector General who assessed the IRS' mistakes stated that they weren't violations of the law. It's not clear how one might make such behavior illegal, but increasing punishment in an effort to reduce the chance of partisan behavior might have helped keep it from happening.
The Inspector General's report also found a good deal of managerial mistakes; some sort of review of the internal processes of the IRS might also help. And then there's the whole issue of why the IRS is battling shadowy political groups at all. Reforming tax-exemption policy could make any reviews unnecessary.
What's been proposed: Rep. Michael Turner of Ohio intends to push for a law that would impose a tougher penalty on IRS employees that discriminate against groups or people based on political speech. The prohibition already exists, mind you — Turner's bill would only increase the penalties for violations, including jail time. (Acting-IRS-commissioner-for-now Steven Miller argued today that the employees made "mistakes," but hadn't acted with bias, so it's not clear if this prohibition comes into effect.) A number of Republican elected officials have also called for increased investigations.
The president has focused on the management side, demanding the resignation of Miller in an effort to revamp the institution's management. Others in his party have taken a different view. During today's hearing, several members of Congress raised questions about reforming the code that relates to tax-exempt organizations. That, as we've explained before, is much harder than it sounds.
One area in which IRS-related policy has come to center-stage is Obamacare. During yesterday's 37th vote to repeal the healthcare policy, the IRS scandal was used as a justification to curtail the reach of the Affordable Care Act. Senator John Cornyn of Texas has pledged to remove Obamacare from the IRS' purview — though this is far more about the ACA than it is an effort to fix the problems at the IRS.
The scandal: The government seizing phone records from the Associated Press
Is it a scandal? Yes, according to The Atlantic's James Fallows
What could be done: The Department of Justice's sweeping subpoena of phone records is already questionable. Federal statute necessitates a very specific request when the media is subject to a subpoena, and indicates that doing so without telling the media outlet should be done only in certain circumstances. Justice did neither, which the AP has loudly protested.
One thing that could be done is to clarify the existing standards more thoroughly. Another is the creation of a broad "media shield" law, which would give the First Amendment rights of the press to report without government interference stronger emphasis over the government's right to prosecute internal leaks.
What's been proposed: A 2009 media shield law developed between the White House, Senate Democrats, and some newspapers died on Capitol Hill in the wake of Wikileaks' release of diplomatic cables. This week, an aide to the president called that bill's sponsor, Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, to ask that he take up the issue once again.
It's not clear, though, that the 2009 bill would actually have prevented the possible overreach seen in the AP case. Given the subjectivity at play in determining how the subpoena could be executed, the shield law might not have kept Justice from doing what it did. Attorney General Eric Holder stated that the leak which led to the AP investigation was "one of the two or three worst" he'd seen — a subjective statement that could be enough cover for Justice's seizure.
It's not surprising that Obama should be a prominent actor on pushing for change in all of these scandals; after all, it's his neck that's being threatened. It's still early in the "scandal" lifecycle — largely triggered a week ago Friday by the release of the Benghazi talking points — so more proposals could result.
For now, the talk on Capitol Hill hasn't really been about fixing the problems. It's been about trumpeting them. Perhaps as a result, Americans aren't paying much attention.