What the IRS did right

Turns out some of the conservative groups it scrutinized were actively and wrongly involved in partisan politics

By Joan Walsh
Published May 28, 2013 3:28PM (EDT)
                        (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
(Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

Outrage first, facts later. That’s often the way American political “scandals” unfold, and it seems to be the case with the news that the IRS targeted conservative political groups for extra scrutiny before granting them tax-exempt status as social-welfare organizations.

We knew from the beginning of the IRS mess that the only group actually denied tax-exempt status was the Maine chapter of a Democratic women’s group, Emerge America. Now we’re learning about some of the right-wing organizations that came in for extra scrutiny, as reported by the New York Times Monday: a conservative veterans’ group that only backed one candidate, a Republican, for Congress; an Alabama Tea Party group that took part in a “defeat Barack Obama” voter-turnout drive, and the “Ohio Liberty Coalition” led by a Republican activist who sent his members information on Mitt Romney campaign events and recruited them to volunteer for the GOP nominee.

Some former IRS officials are speaking out to defend the agency, and taking issue with parts of the critical inspector general’s report. Inspector General J. Russell George found evidence of inadequate management and supervision, and that the agency incorrectly used keywords like “Tea Party” or “patriots” to scrutinize applications. But the report also concluded that the agency acted inappropriately when it asked groups about their donors, or their leaders’ plans to run for public office – when in fact such questions can be perfectly appropriate when trying to discover if a political group is wrongly seeking “social welfare” status.

“The I.G. was as careless with terminology as the Cincinnati office was,” said Marcus S. Owens, former head of the IRS’s exempt organizations division. “Half of those questions have been found to be germane in court decisions.” Some election lawyers told the Times that they believed the IRS “scandal” was at least partly ginned up to derail audits and other scrutiny of the rising number of political groups seeking tax-exempt status as the 2014 midterms approach.

Some of the conservative groups identified by the Times told the IRS they did not engage in electoral politics when in fact they did. The Wetumpka, Ala., Tea Party group told the Times that its participation in Code Red USA, a national voter turnout drive intended to engineer “the defeat of President Barack Obama,” was for “educational purposes.” The head of the Ohio Liberty Coalition claimed distributing literature for Mitt Romney was “not political activity.” He told the Times his lawyers said the IRS was concerned about television and radio advertising.

Clearly, the IRS’s use of search terms like “Tea Party,” “liberty” and “patriots” was wrong, especially in the absence of comparable search terms to root out progressive groups. So the president was probably right to declare the targeting mess an “outrage.” On the other hand, it would have been nice to have all the facts before so many liberals, myself included, began throwing fuel on the right-wing fire.

And predictably, having gotten the entire spectrum of political opinion to declare the IRS’s activities a “scandal,” the National Republican Campaign Committee is now using the embattled agency in ads against four vulnerable Democratic House incumbents: Arizona’s Ann Kirkpatrick and Ron Barber, Collin Peterson of Minnesota and John Barrow of Georgia. They’ll be driving trucks around each district with a billboard: “Rep. Barrow’s Plan: Put the IRS In Charge of Your Health Care. Fed Up?”

The IRS mess is coming to look more like the Benghazi “scandal”: a diversion from the genuine policy questions at issue, concocted to embarrass the president.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Barack Obama Conservatives Emerge America Irs Media Criticism Republicans Scandal Tea Party