When the news broke Friday that the IRS had targeted conservative and tea party nonprofit groups for extremely intrusive audits, the initial reaction among many commentators was: Boy, this really helps Republicans.
It’s wrong, though, to view this through a partisan lens. It’s not about who benefits politically, because everyone ultimately loses when government abuses its power — especially through the tax code, whose tentacles reach far and wide into society.
The IRS appears to have erred in at least three ways:
—It targeted groups that opposed President Obama’s agenda. Some have defended this on the grounds that IRS agents were suspicious of the surge in the number of applicants for 501(c)(4) tax-exempt status and were merely trying to verify that they qualified.
But as The Daily Beast’s Megan McArdle points out, if that was the IRS’s concern it should have reviewed a random sample of the new groups, to see what percentage engaged in political behavior that disqualified them from 501(c)(4) status. Nascent tea partiers would have automatically been overrepresented in that. Instead, the agency took a non-random sample by filtering for specific terms that indicated a political bias, using words such as “tea party” and “patriot” that were sure to exclude other kinds of groups. Why?
—It went beyond a biased search filter. The IRS sent these flagged groups a multi-page questionnaire that drilled deep into their membership, donors, business practices, communications and beliefs. Some groups, believing the information request too intrusive, reportedly were intimidated into abandoning the effort to become tax-exempt.
IRS officials need to justify this level of inquiry and demonstrate that it was applied to all 501(c)(4) applicants, not just the tea partiers.
—It might not have been totally forthcoming about its knowledge of the problem.
In March 2012, then-IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman testified to Congress that “there’s absolutely no targeting.” However, over the weekend it was reported that senior IRS officials knew agents were targeting tea party groups as early as 2011. By Monday, it was revealed an upcoming Inspector General report will show that the practice first began in the 2010 midterm cycle.
A congressional investigation is needed to get to the truth, and to hold people accountable.
Using the tax enforcement apparatus for politically discriminatory means is serious business (it was one of the articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon). The IRS has tried to downplay this as the work of a few low-level employees, not an agency-wide effort. Even if that were true, that in itself is chilling: that middling bureaucrats are on their own capable of such actions. Remember that when the IRS hires thousands more agents to enforce the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) when it is completely rolled out in 2014.
The IRS is one of the most powerful and feared government agencies. Those who wink at such abuses of power now because of who was targeted may one day find themselves on the receiving end. That’s why it’s imperative that Americans of all political stripes unite to ensure that the IRS is seen as impartial and held to the highest standards of conduct.
From the Panama City News Herald