by Michael Cannon, CATO Institute
On Friday, the IRS admitted that when “social welfare” groups with the terms “tea party” or “patriot” in their names applied for 501(c)(4)/tax-exempt status, IRS agents targeted them for extra (and extra-legal) scrutiny to ensure they were not engaged in politicking. The Washington Post reports, “about 75 groups were selected for extra inquiry — including, in some cases, improper requests for the names of donors.” IRS agents did not apply similar scrutiny to groups with “progressive” in their names.
Over the weekend, more details emerged. It now appears the IRS lied to Congress about this practice for more than a year. It also appears the IRS is still targeting tea-party groups today, in part because IRS bureaucrats believe groups that “educat[e] on the Constitution and Bill of Rights” deserve greater scrutiny.
Here’s a rundown.
Senior IRS officials have known about these abuses for nearly two years. The Associated Press reports: “Senior Internal Revenue Service officials knew agents were targeting tea party groups as early as 2011…on June 29, 2011, Lois G. Lerner, who heads the IRS division that oversees tax-exempt organizations, learned at a meeting that groups were being targeted, according to the watchdog’s report. At the meeting, she was told that groups with ‘Tea Party,’ ‘Patriot’ or ‘9/12 Project’ in their names were being flagged for additional and often burdensome scrutiny…Lerner instructed agents to change the criteria for flagging groups ‘immediately’…”. IRS agents also gave extra scrutiny to groups that “criticize how the country is being run.”
The IRS tried to get away with it again. The Washington Post reports:
the agency revised its criteria a week later.
But six months later, the IRS applied a new political test to groups that applied for tax-exempt status as “social welfare” groups, the document says. On Jan. 15, 2012 the agency decided to target “political action type organizations involved in limiting/expanding Government, educating on the Constitution and Bill of Rights, social economic reform movement”…
The agency did not appear to adopt a more neutral test for social welfare groups…until May 17, 2012…
Of course, these revised criteria are not politically neutral either. Tea-party groups are still far more likely to receive extra scrutiny than progressive groups. Lots of right-leaning political groups describe their mission as working to limit government or educate people about the Constitution. Far fewer left-leaning groups emphasize educating people about the Constitution or openly declare their mission is to expand government. And note: the U.S. government treated groups as suspect if they educate the public about the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Let that one sink in.
The IRS lied to Congress for more than a year. The Associated Press reports: “At a congressional hearing March 22, 2012, [then-IRS commissioner Douglas] Shulman was adamant in his denials. ‘There’s absolutely no targeting.’” Senior IRS staff knew that claim was false nine months before Shulman made it. Yet they let Shulman’s false statement to Congress go uncorrected, amid a congressional investigation into whether the IRS was targeting tea-party groups, for another 14 months. According to the Washington Post, “The IRS made no mention of targeting conservative groups in five separate responses to congressional inquiries between Nov. 18, 2011, and June 15, 2012, according to the [inspector general’s] timeline.” Even if we view the facts in the light most favorable to the IRS and assume Shulman did not know he was uttering a falsehood – which, by the way, would mean he is a very poor manager – the IRS’s failure to correct that falsehood pretty much makes it a lie. I don’t mean that in the phony way PolitiFact uses the term. I mean a real lie.
The IRS did not come forward of its own accord. The Associated Press: “The Treasury Department’s inspector general for tax administration is expected to release the results of a nearly yearlong investigation in the coming week.” House Oversight Committee chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) put it, “Before the IG’s report comes to the public or to Congress as required by law, it’s leaked by the IRS to try to spin the output. This mea culpa’s not an honest one.”
IRS officials maintain the targeting of tea-party groups was the work of low-level employees and not politically motivated. Yet the agency has shown a willingness to deceive Congress and the public about its own misconduct. Congress should conduct a thorough investigation.
Even if it is true that low-level IRS bureaucrats were acting on their own, Congress’ investigation should examine the role Obama administration officials played in encouraging those bureaucrats to single out the tea party. As New York Times columnist Ross Douthatexplains:
Where might an enterprising, public-spirited I.R.S. agent get the idea that a Tea Party group deserved more scrutiny from the government than the typical band of activists seeking tax-exempt status? Oh, I don’t know: why, maybe from all the prominent voices who spent the first two years of the Obama era worrying that the Tea Party wasn’t just a typically messy expression of citizen activism, but something much darker — an expression of crypto-fascist, crypto-racist rage, part Timothy McVeigh and part Bull Connor, potentially carrying a wave of terrorist violence in its wings.
It would be very bad if senior Obama administration officials ordered the IRS to intimidate the president’s political opponents. It would scarcely be better if administration officials denounced their opponents until IRS bureaucrats took the hint.
People should lose their jobs over this.