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What scandal-mania overreach looks like

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.)
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.)Associated Press

Soon after the political world became preoccupied with Scandal Mania, and congressional Republicans casually began throwing around references to impeaching President Obama, there's been a fairamount of speculation about GOP "overreach." It's happened before, and if Republicans weren't careful, it was poised to happen again.

It's been less clear, however, exactly what GOP overreach would look like, and since there's no set definition of the word in this context, I've worked from the assumption that we'd know it when we saw it.

And right now, I think we're seeing it, most notably on the IRS controversy.

To be sure, there is a legitimate underlying controversy, and there's a sound rationale for congressional hearings. And if Republican policymakers were dealing with the matter responsibly, the talk of overreach would disappear.

But they're not. On the one hand, we're seeing over-the-top rhetorical overreach.

Asked by Fox's Bill Hemmer what he hoped to learn at Monday afternoon's hearing, Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) offered this bit of pre-hearing analysis:

"Of course, the enemies list out of the White House that IRS was engaged in shutting down or trying to shut down the conservative political viewpoint across the country -- an enemies list that rivals that of another president some time ago."

It was a sentence in need of a verb but packed with innuendo. And it is part of an approach by House Republicans that seems to follow the Lewis Carroll school of jurisprudence. Not only are they placing the sentence before the verdict, they're putting the verdict before the trial.

Remember, Rogers isn't some random Fox personality; he's one of Congress' most powerful officials. And on the IRS story, he's already unhinged, spewing nonsense on national television.

Rogers' comments coincide with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) insisting that the White House used the IRS "to target those they perceive as their political enemies" -- a claim with no basis in fact -- and House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) throwing a tantrum on one of the Sunday shows.

Initially, GOP leaders saw value in avoiding cheap shots -- they knew that if the story became a partisan food fight, it wouldn't be taken seriously, and the political costs to President Obama would be limited. But as is usually the case, the overreach instinct among Republican partisans is simply uncontrollable.

What's more, it's not just rhetoric. Indeed, arguably the more salient point is the way in which the overreach is manifesting itself in policy debates.

On Fox News yesterday, for example, Texas' Ted Cruz argued that the IRS controversy means we need to abolish progressive taxation and move to a regressive flat tax.

Now, in this case, I'll skip the detailed explanation as to why a flat tax is a terrible idea -- that matters, but let's stay focused -- and instead note how convenient the political circumstances have become for opportunists. There's an ongoing controversy surrounding the Internal Revenue Service, and wouldn't you know it, the story offers some GOP policymakers an excuse to push the same ideas they supported before. Cruz wanted to get rid of the IRS before, and now he has a new rationale to defend his pre-existing agenda.

There's a lot of this going around:

The IRS "scandal" means we have to eliminate our system of progressive taxation.

The IRS "scandal" means we have to scrap the Affordable Care Act.

The IRS "scandal" means we shouldn't work on student-loan interest rates.

The IRS "scandal" means we can't allow transparency in the campaign-finance system.

One House Republican has even introduced a bill to prohibit "all federal agencies with access to taxpayer information from implementing or enforcing Obamacare until each agency can certify under perjury of law that no abuse of taxpayer information has taken place and has terminated employees found to have violated the constitutional rights of any taxpayer."

This, my friends, is what scandal overreach looks like. If Republicans want to get to the bottom of what happened at the IRS, that's a great idea. If they want to punish those who engaged in wrongdoing, no problem. If they want to take steps to prevent future abuses within the tax agency, fine.

But what they really want to do, apparently, is rant and rave before the cameras, and use the story as a pretense to push the same agenda they've supported all along.

It's the latest evidence to bolster the post-policy thesis -- governing and problem-solving have been abandoned, replaced with a partisan desire to shamelessly exploit an underwhelming bureaucratic glitch to do what the far-right wants to do anyway. There's real, meaningful work to be done when it comes to the integrity of laws related to tax-exempt groups and the IRS's challenges in enforcing an ambiguous tax code. But that work is hard, and it appears Republicans aren't interested in doing it.