The Obama administration made clear its deep dislike of Citizens United and of the various new conservative groups spawned by the “tea party” movement. The IRS bureaucrats took the hint. No express order from senior administration officials would have been necessary. Like other federal enforcement agencies, the IRS has always been well-attuned to even subtle guidance from the White House, Congress and the political establishment.
Thus, the IRS crackdown on conservative organizations was a direct and inevitable consequence of political and policy messaging by the Obama administration, and by the campaign-finance reformers who share these views. Congressional Democrats are also to blame, since many of them have publicly—as with Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which oversees the IRS—or privately urged the IRS to go after conservative tax-exempt organizations.
Ignoring their own share of responsibility, campaign-finance reformers and their allies are now pressing to broaden the IRS crackdown to apply to all tax-exempt organizations. In their view, the problem is not only with express political advocacy, but with all tax-exempt activities that might have political overtones, or be related to political issues. Indeed, many argue that such organizations should be conspicuously apolitical.
This is wrong as a matter of law and policy. Congress doesn’t have to provide tax-exempt status to social-welfare organizations, but having done so it cannot discriminate by the kind of advocacy in which such groups engage. To say that such activities can have no political implications is an insult to common sense. In a vibrant democracy, every major policy debate has political implications.