It may be that the Internal Revenue Service was overzealous and unfair when, as an internal Treasury Department report concluded, IRS employees singled out conservative non-profit groups for additional review of their applications for 501(c)4 status. But that doesn't mean the groups didn't deserve careful scrutiny. The IRS team that strained to process a flood of such applications after the Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court focused on key words including “tea party.” A number of groups self-identified by that name in their applications. Some of them also reportedly admitted up front that they were engaged in political campaigning.
Context: Citizens United clearly screwed up the distinction between official political groups in the IRS' 527 category and supposedly non-political "social welfare" groups eligible for non-profit tax status under 501(c)4. The IRS by law is charged with granting 501(c)(4) status to organizations that are "not organized for profit but operated exclusively for the promotion of social welfare."
Under the 501(c)(4) designation, a group not only doesn't have to pay taxes, it needn't disclose its donors. So how does the IRS check the claims of applicants that they are engaged in social welfare activities rather than politics? Not easily.
In the case of the tea party groups, just given the public record, IRS clearly was faced with squaring that circle. So is it any wonder that groups in some cases self-avowing political activity and which identified themselves as "tea party," a term closely aligned with organized political interests, experienced longer delays in getting accepted -- which, by the way, they all eventually did?
A bigger scandal than IRS incompetence in managing this briar patch is that a group could acknowledge going in that it was essentially political and still get approved. At least one such group reportedly also provided data showing that it wasn't even a not-for-profit organization, as the law requires.
Now, GOP screaming over the IRS' less-than-elegant approach is nothing more than another instance of "disaster capitalism" -- screw up democracy with roadblocks and illogic, then blame the other side when your plan succeeds in fomenting chaos.
On the face of it, the application processing delays have little if anything to do with whether the groups were perceived as conservative --except to the extent that it was the legal duty of the IRS to determine if they were, in fact, political. The delays rather had more to do with what these groups indicated up front, right in their applications to the IRS.
Yes, the IRS set aside a group of such applications for further scrutiny. Why? Because it wanted to punish these groups? Even though it eventually approved their activities, and after the fact? No. Because, however clumsily, IRS was trying to do its job, paying attention to politics while not paying attention to the politics. As per our court-approved, screwed-up federal laws.
Indeed, the tin ear that the IRS processing staff lent to political perceptions in this matter was at least in part because of Watergate-era restrictions that mandate the IRS avoid politics and remain isolated from elected lawmakers. But one thing every American wage-earner knows: Unfair legal tax loopholes notwithstanding, the IRS is expressly designed to notice overt evidence of tax fraud.
I mean, consider this analogy: if you as an individual typical taxpayer sends in a cover letter with your 1040 form saying you are a tax resister, you hate taxes, don't like paying them, do you think an IRS processing office might tend to take a somewhat harder than average look at your paperwork? Hmmm?
The real issue isn't whether IRS staffers mishandled its inquiries, or how it wrestled with the mess that the Supreme Court made of the law. And there's no question at all that the problems in this respect were self-reported by the government, via the Treasury Department's independent auditor. No, none of that amounts to a hill of beans. After all, the tea party groups had their applications approved in the end and well before the audit.
Rather, the big picture, as a number of observers have noted, including Karoli over at CrooksandLiars.com is this:
What else was happening at the time the IRS decided to look closer at these groups? Karl Rove was crowing all over the place about his big initiative with Crossroads GPS, Sarah Palin was reading her hand at the "National Tea Party Convention", and Glenn Beck was huddling with Paul Ryan to plot ways to "flush out" progressivism.More of Karoli's commentary plus some fine legwork at:
In this environment, is it difficult to understand why the IRS put these groups under high scrutiny? Just for the record, it wasn't only conservative groups, either. In fact, the only organization denied tax-exempt status was a liberal group who intended to recruit women candidates.
The scandal here isn't the IRS having the common sense to look harder at these organizations. The scandal is the utter incompetence with which they did it. Asking stupid questions, asking for radio interview transcripts? Stupid, stupid, stupid. Their incompetence is truly mind-blowing, but this one case study should prove beyond all reasonable doubt that these so-called grassroots organizations deserved all scrutiny and attention given to them. After all, these organizations and their donors are asking for a pass on taxes. They have a duty to prove they deserve that.