A bedrock principle of U.S. democracy is that the coercive powers of government are never used for partisan purpose. The law is blind to political viewpoint, and so are its enforcers, most especially the FBI and the Internal Revenue Service. Any violation of this principle threatens the trust and the voluntary cooperation of citizens upon which this democracy depends.
So it was appalling to learn Friday that the IRS had improperly targeted conservative groups for scrutiny. It was almost as disturbing that President Obama and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew have not personally apologized to the American people and promised a full investigation…
The agency said that it now has rules in place to make sure this sort of thing never happens again. How could such basic safeguards not have existed in the first place? And what are the new rules? In response to our questions, officials did not say.
Ms. Lerner’s version of the story is that three things happened independently of one another:
First, “line people” — that’s IRS-speak for grunts — decided, on their own and with no direction from above, to create a special category of organizations applying for tax-exempt status: “Tea Party and Patriot” organizations. Ms. Lerner says that other organizations may have been specifically named, but when challenged could not think of one, and then added: “I only said that because I don’t like to say ‘absolutely not.’ But I don’t know.”
Second, that batch of applicants was delayed for an unusual period of time. Ms. Lerner said that this was the result of an unusually large number of applications coming in, but applications for tax-exempt status have been growing quickly since 2008 — making 2012’s bumper crop something less than an unforeseeable circumstance.
Third, and perhaps most troubling, those tea-party organizations were sent letters of inquiry demanding information that would seldom if ever be demanded of any other applicant in the process. The IRS demanded lists of donors, names of spouses and family members, detailed information about political views and associations — all of that “under penalties of perjury.” Many applicants dropped out of the process. The questions were remarkably invasive: For example, the IRS demanded to know not only whether political candidates participated in public forums conducted by the groups, but which issues were discussed, along with copies of any literature distributed at the forum and material published on websites. (The IRS has been less forthcoming with its own materials related to this investigation.) If the organizations collected dues, the IRS demanded to know how much they were. It demanded everything down to the résumés of employees. The inquiry was not limited to members of the organization, its executives, or its directors, but included even their family members: The IRS demanded to know — again, under penalty of perjury — whether any of their family members might be thinking about running for office. Its demand for the names of all donors — and all recipients of grants — is in violation of IRS policy.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) issued the following statement today condemning the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) for targeting conservative groups and applauding House Republican members for their efforts to hold the administration accountable:
“The admission by the Obama administration that the Internal Revenue Service targeted political opponents echoes some of the most shameful abuses of government power in 20th-century American history. Today, we are left with serious questions: who is ultimately responsible for this travesty? What actions will the Obama administration take to hold them accountable? And have other federal agencies used government powers to attack Americans for partisan reasons? House Republicans have made oversight of federal agencies a top priority on behalf of the American people, and I applaud the work that members such as Charles Boustany, Darrell Issa and Jim Jordan have done to bring this issue to light. I also strongly support Sen. McConnell’s call for a transparent, government-wide review to ensure similar practices are not happening elsewhere in the federal bureaucracy.”
Organizations that had been pressing for more aggressive enforcement of tax-exemption laws reacted with alarm. Lisa Gilbert, the director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division, said the I.R.S. should not be targeting any particular political ideology. But, she said, questioning applicants for tax exemption to determine whether they were primarily political was entirely proper and should be more widely pursued.
“We don’t think it’s inappropriate to ask questions,” she said. “Tax-exempt groups are abusing their tax status to pursue political agendas.”
Under current law, tax-exempt 501(c)(4) organizations are supposed to be “primarily” engaged in social welfare work. In practice, groups like the conservative Crossroads GPS and the liberal Priorities USA appear to spend virtually all their efforts trying to sway elections.
It’s important to understand that the timing of these requests, in the middle of the 2012 campaign, had the effect of stifling political activity. The targeted groups had tax-exempt status that allowed them to participate in certain kinds of political messaging. But any such group receiving IRS missives is immediately going to become cautious, lest it risk the arbitrary wrath of some tax official. The speech-squelching effects may have been especially important in Ohio, which was ground zero in the battle for the White House.
Ms. Lerner’s apology on Friday was unexpected but we’re doubtful that it came as a sudden bolt of conscience. The mea culpa lands ahead of an official report on the tax-fishing incidents by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration. That report was requested by House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa and Ohio Republican Representative Jim Jordan in June 2012, and the IG is expected to issue its findings soon.
The incident is particularly rich in light of recent efforts by campaign finance reformers to broaden the powers of the IRS and other non-expert agencies to regulate politics, especially nonprofits. The latest campaign finance disclosure bill sponsored by Senators Ron Wyden (D., Ore.) and Lisa Murkowski (R., Alaska), would force trade organizations and 527 and 501(c) groups to disclose their donors, institute real-time reporting requirements and impose draconian penalties for noncompliance.
For the past few years, Republican lawmakers have sought to slash the funding of the IRS. Reducing the agency’s budget makes it more difficult for it to collect taxes and audit individuals. (Score one for Republicans who dislike high taxes).
But, more importantly, the IRS is also one of the key agencies that will implement the Affordable Care Act. Much of the funding stream for the incoming health care law, arguably the president’s signature legislative achievement, comes from two tax increases: a 3.8 percent hike on investment income for wealthy individuals, estates, and trusts, as well as an additional Medicare tax.
By stripping the IRS of money, the Republicans are indirectly trying to attack the roll-out of the health care law that begins in 2014.
Now, the news that rogue, low-level IRS agents in Ohio investigated conservative groups improperly just adds fuel to the Republicans’ bashing.
So many Americans knew this was happening, but many felt defenseless and even helpless against a government that seems to roll along without accountability or sense of obligation to the people it’s supposed to serve. These Americans were mocked for being concerned about this, but now we see light shining on the truth, finally.
This IRS revelation is another step in the unraveling of the Obama administration’s self-proclaimed “hope and change.” Between the Benghazi cover-up and the IRS targeting Obama’s political opponents, we see the corruption at the heart of big government.
Americans should remember that this same corrupt IRS will be in charge of enforcing Obamacare. And this same inept and corrupt government will supposedly secure our now unsecured borders in advance of immigration reform and will implement a completely ethical and non-political IPAB panel to make life and death health care decisions for you and your family. Forgive me for not trusting these big government promises any more than I trust the White House’s latest Benghazi spin or the IRS’ fairness.
— Joe Scarborough (@JoeNBC) May 11, 2013