12 May 2013
An IRS inquisition against conservatives?
Let's be clear about what happened. When people report that the Internal Revenue Service was "auditing" Tea Party organizations and other conservative groups, an impression is created that the government is after evidence of tax evasion with an idea of prosecuting political enemies. What actually appears to have happened is that IRS investigators were scrutinizing claims of tax-exempt status for "social welfare" organizations that aren't supposed to engage in electioneering. This certainly inconveniences some groups, but to characterize it as "harassment," as one TP leader does, is maybe a little excessive. What seems questionable about the IRS activity, as one of the service's own higher-ups apparently realized, was its selectivity. The investigations singled out organizations identified with the Tea Party or conservatism, while presumably pro-Democratic organizations, perhaps equally abusive of tax-exempt status, didn't get the same scrutiny. Nearly two years ago, however, the investigators were ordered to broaden their vocabulary of search terms to avoid the appearance of singling out conservatives. In other words, this is old news now just happening to come to light. It'll be another black eye for the Obama administration because of the appearance or loose rhetoric of harassment, and because the American reflex is to give dissent the benefit of the doubt. If Democrats run the government, and the government, through the IRS, refuses tax-exempt status to organizations sympathetic toward the Republican party, people will automatically assume that the Democrats are attempting, in this small way, to suppress or at least handicap dissent. Rather than risk the appearance of selective, partisan scrutiny, the right thing to do might be to do away with the 501(c)4 exemption rule, which has been problematic since it was instituted. The "social welfare" category of advocacy has proven too nebulous to maintain strict distinctions between advocacy and electioneering, especially at a time when everything seems politicized and partisan. Why these groups were thought entitled to tax exemptions in the first place eludes me, and the exemption process has only enabled mischief. It's too late now to end a mistake with a minimum of embarrassment, and now's as good a time as any for everyone to take their medicine.