Jonathan Chait: IRS targeting of Tea Party groups was 'imaginary'

Jonathan Chait: IRS targeting of Tea Party groups was 'imaginary'
(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Yesterday, Jonathan Chait was set off by something published at National Review and went into a Twitter thread about how the IRS targeting of Tea Party groups was an “imaginary” abuse invented by conservatives.

Much of what he’s said here is wrong. It is true that evidence directly connecting President Obama to the targeting of Tea Party groups was never found. However, what Chait fails to acknowledge is that there wasn’t any need for a secret email from Obama. Obama was openly and repeatedly saying at the time that the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision was a blow to “our democracy itself.” For example:

And there was this moment during the State of the Union:

As many of us pointed out at the time, this was Obama essentially saying “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” And we know that Lois Lerner, former director of the Exempt Organizations Unit for the IRS, was very aware of the bitter complaints coming from the White House and elsewhere because she admitted it back in 2010. Here she is echoing Obama’s concerns about Citizens United and saying “everyone is up in arms because they don’t like it.” She added, “Federal Election Commission can’t do anything about it and they want the IRS to fix the problem.”

Lerner goes on to deny there’s anything the IRS can do. And yet, at an IRS office in Cincinnati, her subordinates were doing searches for applicants with “Tea Party” in their name. Here I’m going to hand it over to former FEC chairman Brad Smith.

I’m just going to interject that Chait’s summary of how this targeting worked is wrong. In his tweets above he wrote “GOP looks up IRS search terms for conservative groups, finds they used them to locate political groups abusing tax laws. Targeting!” That makes it sound as if the IRS was looking to identify groups that were “abusing” tax laws. But the IG report says that’s not what was happening: [emphasis added]

We found that the IRS used inappropriate criteria that identified for review organizations applying for tax-exempt status based upon their names or policy positions instead of indications of significant potential political campaign intervention. After the IRS responded to the findings in the draft report but prior to the issuance of our final report, the Director, Exempt Organizations, appeared at an American Bar Association meeting on May 10, 2013, and stated that the IRS’s use of organization names in the title for the selection of advocacy cases was “…incorrect, insensitive, and inappropriate.” We issued the final report on May 14, 2013,4 and concluded that ineffective management: 1) allowed inappropriate criteria to be developed and stay in place for more than 18 months, 2) resulted in substantial delays in processing certain applications, and 3) allowed unnecessary information requests to be issued.

That Chait missed this point shows he missed everything. The Tea Party groups were not singled out to locate groups abusing tax laws, they were singled out for extra scrutiny based solely on the name and politics of the group without any evidence they had done anything wrong. And as noted in that excerpt, Lerner admitted this was inappropriate.

As for the claim that progressive groups were also targeted, the numbers were heavily weighted toward Tea Party groups. But even if other groups were targeted in the same way, that doesn’t mean the scandal was imaginary only that it was (barely) bipartisan. From the Washington Post:

Other entities have examined the IRS’s handling of nonprofit groups at the time and concluded that conservatives were affected disproportionately. The Senate Finance Committee, for instance, concluded in 2015 that most of the groups whose applications were given extra scrutiny were “Tea Party and conservative groups” but also acknowledged that some left-leaning groups “experienced lengthy processing delays and inappropriate and burdensome requests for information.”

Four years after the targeting allegations prompted the resignation or retirement of three top IRS officials, the controversy has continued to simmer in Republican circles.

This was not an imaginary abuse. It happened. People lost their jobs.

Lois Lerner, a central figure in the Internal Revenue Service’s tea party controversy, resigned Monday morning after an internal review board determined that she should be removed from the agency for “neglect of duties,” according to a statement from the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee…

“Lois Lerner is being held responsible for her gross mismanagement of the IRS tax-exempt division, which led to improper handling of applications for tax-exempt status,” Rep. Sander M. Levin (Mich.), the ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, said in a statement Monday.

There was a time when Democrats were aware this was a scandal but Chait is one of the people trying to revise history for the benefit of Democrats.

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David Strom 6:01 AM on June 06, 2023