The pithy explainer site Vox has endeavored to “voxsplain” the scandal involving the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups with undue scrutiny. It’s a wonder they felt that this was even necessary, considering the lengths to which political reporters went in order to diminish what Slate’s Dave Weigel called the “Q-rating,” or popular interest, in the story.
But the IRS, which stumbled into this controversy in the first place, has forced a reluctant press to relitigate the issues surrounding the targeting of conservative groups when they claimed two years’ of former IRS executive Lois Lerner’s emails had simply disappeared. This excuse was met with earned incredulity from lawmakers and media figures alike.
The IRS scandal’s renewed “Q-rating” has forced Vox’s Dylan Matthews to concede that this is, indeed, a “scandal.” Not, however, for the reasons you might expect; incompetent management, stifling bureaucracy, a culture that rewarded political retribution, etc. No, the problem is as it ever was – not enough taxpayer funding.
“The IRS has been underfunded for years, and there’s strong reason to believe that it needs more money if it’s going to avoid issues like the one it ran into with conservative non-profits in the future,” Matthews wrote.
“As ironic as the budgetary cost of the budget cuts is, the ultimate irony is that they could wind up replicating the scandal House Republicans are trying to address,” he continued. “There were a number of reasons for why the IRS started singling out groups with words like ‘Tea Party’ and ‘patriot’ in the name, but a lack of resources to do more effective screening was a major factor.”
The Vox columnist later explained that the rules governing 501(c)(4)s, which changed radically in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, resulted in a spike in the number of groups seeking tax-exempt status. “So considerably fewer employees were suddenly charged with considerably more work,” he added, noting a rise in applications coincided with a decline in IRS staffing. “And it’s safe to say the work was more politically fraught and challenging.”
The claim that the 2010 Citizens United decision resulted in a surge in tax-exempt applications which swamped the IRS and forced them to do shoddy work was among the first submitted by the administration’s most eager defenders. It was also one of the earliest exculpatory claims to be debunked.
Via a Politifact post discrediting this claim from June, 2013:
Here’s how the activity breaks down for 501(c)(4) applications, the sort of tax-exempt group where political activity is allowed:
The earliest that there might have been a jump in applications would have been in October 2010. That is well after the IRS began its effort to give selective treatment to tea party groups.
It’s true that 501(c)(4) applications have increased in recent years, but they had not “shot up dramatically,” as Matthews describes it, in the immediate wake of the Citizens United decision in 2010. “The real surge in applications did not come until 2012 — the year the IRS stopped the practice of treating the Tea Party class of groups differently from others,” wrote The Atlantic’s Garance Franke-Ruta.
Matthews goes on to favorably quote a New York Times story which he said “ looked into the IRS Cincinnati office, the epicenter of the scandal.” This assertion is simply insulting to anyone who has been following the IRS scandal. Another of the early efforts by the administration to “voxsplain” the IRS scandal away was the claim that two rogue IRS employees in a provincial Cincinnati outpost were solely responsible for the targeting.
That did not turn out to be the case. “I was essentially a front person, because I had no autonomy or no authority to act on [applications] without [D.C.-based IRS attorney] Carter Hull’s influence or input,” said Cincinnati-based IRS employee Elizabeth Hofacre in congressional testimony leaked to The Wall Street Journal in June of last year.
The interview transcripts suggest it began with a search for tea-party groups by name among applications from groups seeking tax-exempt status. The Cincinnati employee who conducted the search, Gary Muthert, said he started gathering applications in March 2010, at the request of an unidentified local manager, who allegedly told him that “Washington, D.C., wanted some cases,” according to the transcripts. Mr. Muthert first heard of tea-party applications from another Cincinnati employee.
In May of 2014, the activist group Judicial Watch obtained documents following a FIOA request which showed clearly that the Cincinnati office was directed to heavily scrutinize “tea party applications” out of Washington.
On July 6, 2012, former Director of the IRS Rulings and Agreements Division and current Manager of Exempt Organizations Guidance Holly Paz sent an email to IRS Attorney Steven Grodnitzky asking for an explanation of how tea party group applications were being handled. Grodnitzky responded by confirming the cases were being handled in Washington.
“EOT is working the Tea party applications in coordination with Cincy. We are developing a few applications here in DC and providing copies of our development letters with the agent to use as examples in the development of their cases. Chip Hull [another lawyer in IRS headquarters] is working these cases in EOT and working with the agent in Cincy, so any communication should include him as well. Because the Tea party applications are the subject of an SCR [Sensitive Case Report], we cannot resolve any of the cases without coordinating with Rob,” Grodnitzky wrote.
While Matthews cites testimony from National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson and a Government Accountability Office report, both of which do point to problems with agency funding and staffing, the Vox columnist referenced few of the most recent developments which make the IRS scandal a scandal in the first place.
There is no mention of the implausible vanishing emails, no reference to leaked communications which indicate that Rep. Elijah Cummings’s (D-MD) office had coordinated with the IRS, no mention of the fact that the IRS may have violated federal tax law when it forwarded confidential taxpayer information to the FBI in an effort to explore the potential to bring criminal charges against some nonprofit groups.
It is unlikely that this manner of apparently voluntary misconduct would have been avoided had Congress simply increased the IRS’s funding before 2010.
The post is just another vehicle to claim that this or the other federal agency needs more funding. It’s a familiar pattern. That is not, however, to suggest that there is no value to this Vox post. It is essential, if only because it freely and without qualification refers to the IRS scandal a “scandal.” Baby steps.