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Stick a fork in the IRS controversy; it's done

The good news for conservatives is that new information about the IRS controversy came to light late yesterday, which renewed coverage of the story Republicans are heavily invested in. The bad news for conservatives it that the revelations were the opposite of what they wanted to hear.

Following up on Rachel's segment from last night, the last remaining pillar of the Republican talking points -- groups on the right were singled out for unfair scrutiny -- has collapsed.

The instructions that Internal Revenue Service officials used to look for applicants seeking tax-exempt status with "Tea Party" and "Patriots" in their titles also included groups whose names included the words "Progressive" and "Occupy," according to I.R.S. documents released Monday.

The documents appeared to back up contentions by I.R.S. officials and some Democrats that the agency did not intend to single out conservative groups for special scrutiny. Instead, the documents say, officials were trying to use "key word" shortcuts to find overtly political organizations — both liberal and conservative — that were after tax favors by saying they were social welfare organizations.

But the practice appeared to go much farther than that. One such "be on the lookout" list included medical marijuana groups, organizations that were promoting President Obama's health care law, and applications that dealt "with disputed territories in the Middle East."

The fact that the practice apparently went "much farther" than previously thought certainly doesn't cast the IRS in a more positive light, but as far as the ongoing political controversy is concerned, this new information is the final nail in the coffin. Americans have been told repeatedly that conservative groups had been singled out for unfair scrutiny and we now know that isn't true.

There was no effort to penalize White House critics; there was no partisan or ideological vendetta; there was no conspiracy involving President Obama or his campaign team.

There's just nothing left. Since this "scandal" erupted in early May, the right has raised a series of allegations, and as of this morning, each of them have been discredited. It's remarkably similar to the efforts to turn the Benghazi attacks into a political controversy -- serious allegations, followed by plenty of sound and fury, resulting in a "scandal" that ends with a whimper.

There is, however, one thing I'd like to know: why didn't we learn about this new information sooner?

We learned about the extent of the problem related to Tea Party groups seeking tax-exempt status through an inspector general's report released several weeks ago. But why did that document overlook these relevant details about liberal groups being subjected to the identical treatment?

House Democrats are eager to find out.

The inspector general report that fueled the IRS tea party targeting scandal is "fundamentally flawed" because it failed to include details that progressive groups were also flagged for extra attention, a senior House Democrat said late Monday.

Michigan Rep. Sander Levin, the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, is demanding answers from Treasury Inspector General J. Russell George about whether it investigated the use of search terms aimed at liberal organizations in the same manner as it probed the agency's oversight of groups that used terms such as "tea party" or "patriot" in their application for a tax exemption.

"The American public expects competent, impartial, unbiased, and non-political treatment from the IRS," Levin wrote. "That same standard is also applicable to you and your organization. Your audit served as the basis and impetus for a wide range of congressional investigations and this new information shows that the foundation of those investigations is flawed in a fundamental way."

So what's the explanation? I'll be eager to hear the response from the IG's office, but it's worth noting that J. Russell George has told lawmakers that his office launches probes at the request of members of Congress. In this case, House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) asked for a review of IRS actions related to conservative groups, so that's what the inspector general did.

In other words, we received a limited and incomplete analysis from the IG's office because Issa asked for a limited and incomplete analysis. The whole story wouldn't have created a "scandal," so it was preferable to keep the truth hidden for a long while.

As for the political fallout, if the traditional trajectory of stories like these is any indication, Americans will hear quite a bit about the allegations, but the resolution will get far less play. "Obama Scandal!" is a front-page story for weeks; "Obama didn't do anything wrong and there is no scandal" is generally buried on page A7 as the political world's search for a new controversy begins.

But if accountability still means anything, every lawmaker and pundit who made Nixon comparisons, and accused the president of using the IRS as a political weapon, has a responsibility to be equally as aggressive in telling the public that those allegations were wrong.