Tuesday, May 28, 2013

So about those conservative groups supposedly being "targeted" by the IRS...

By Michael J.W. Stickings

See, this is how it happens. Republicans create a faux scandal without any grasp, or even any regard for, the facts, the media, both smelling blood to caving in easily to Republican pressure (when they're not in the bag for Republicans already), play right along, enabling the Republicans and providing them credence and a platform, reporting on the faux scandal they themselves are helping create, without any grasp of the facts themselves, and then, much later, the facts come out, slowly, but by then no one's really paying attention anymore and the damage has largely been done.

So Republicans, with their willing media enablers, created a faux scandal out of a report that the IRS had investigated conservative groups with regard to their tax-exempt status, a report that suggested that the investigating of those groups had been somewhat inappropriately conducted, specifically that they had been targeted, that the IRS had tagged certain groups because of their names, and, well, hell broke loose, as you know. Republicans freaked out, whether they knew better or not, feigning outrage and suggesting, stupidly, that Obama wasn't in control, as if the president micro-manages every facet of the federal government, Democats had no clue what to do, and President Obama even got involved, calling what the IRS did "inexcusable" and scapegoating the acting director of the IRS, Steven Miller, who was forced to resign (i.e., fired) even though it's pretty clear this all happened well below him in the organization.

Yes, the faux scandal swept through Washington and the president's knees jerked right along with the Republican / media faux outrage.

But that was all so... two weeks ago.

Even at the time, it was pretty clear what had happened. IRS investigators in Cincinnati may have handled their investigation with less-than-stellar tact, but there was no pressure on them from the White House, or from any outside organization, and they did not act with partisan malice towards conservative groups.

Let me repeat that: There is no evidence conservative groups were targeted for political reasons.

And so really there is no scandal at all.

And, indeed, the more we learn, the clearer that becomes. As the Times reported:

When CVFC, a conservative veterans' group in California, applied for tax-exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service, its biggest expenditure that year was several thousand dollars in radio ads backing a Republican candidate for Congress. 

The Wetumpka Tea Party, from Alabama, sponsored training for a get-out-the-vote initiative dedicated to the "defeat of President Barack Obama" while the I.R.S. was weighing its application.

And the head of the Ohio Liberty Coalition, whose application languished with the I.R.S. for more than two years, sent out e-mails to members about Mitt Romney campaign events and organized members to distribute Mr. Romney's presidential campaign literature.

Representatives of these organizations have cried foul in recent weeks about their treatment by the I.R.S., saying they were among dozens of conservative groups unfairly targeted by the agency, harassed with inappropriate questionnaires and put off for months or years as the agency delayed decisions on their applications.

But a close examination of these groups and others reveals an array of election activities that tax experts and former I.R.S. officials said would provide a legitimate basis for flagging them for closer review. 

Ah, the facts. Which show that the groups in question engaged in some obviously partisan political activity that would seem to run counter to the whole point of tax-exempt status.

Not that anyone's paying much attention anymore -- again, the damage has been done, the narrative mostly set, though the Times and others certainly deserve credit for looking beyond the Republican smears.

The scandal, you see, doesn't involve the IRS and the investigation of these groups, it involves the tax system generally, particularly post-Citizens United, although certainly the IRS should be criticized for not going after bigger fish in the sea, both political and corporate (e.g., the companies that pay little or no income tax, the larger partisan organizations that are allowed to have tax-exempt status). (Though I would note that the IRS, as we've learned from all this, is, like other government agencies, severely overworked, understaffed, and underfunded as a result of the long conservative assault on government over the past several decades.)

And if there's a problem here, it wasn't with lower-level officials in the IRS office in Cincinnati, it was with some conservative groups essentially lying about what they were doing, or at least appying for tax-exempt status when it was pretty clear they didn't, or shouldn't, qualify.

But here's the thing: While there may have been inappropriate delays along the way, no conservative group that applied for it was denied tax-exempt status. Indeed, the only group that was rejected was a Democratic one, Maine's Emerge America.

Honestly, if there were White House or other partisan interference, don't you think it would have been a bit more effective in actually preventing these groups from going about their business?

Anyway, here's the worst that happened:

A report issued this month by the Treasury Department's inspector general, J. Russell George, found that inappropriate criteria, including groups; policy positions, were used to flag some cases and that specialists in the I.R.S. office in Cincinnati, which reviews all tax-exemption requests, sometimes asked questions that were irrelevant to the application process.

And agency officials have acknowledged that specialists inappropriately used keywords like "Tea Party" and "Patriots" in searching through applications. 

And yet:

[S]ome former I.R.S. officials disputed several of Mr. George's conclusions, including his assertion that it was inappropriate to ask groups about their donors, or whether their leaders had plans to run for public office. While unusual, the former officials said, such questions are not prohibited if relevant to an application under consideration. 

"The I.G. was as careless with terminology as the Cincinnati office was," said Marcus S. Owens, who headed the I.R.S.'s exempt organizations division until 2000. "Half of those questions have been found to be germane in court decisions."

I am not saying the IRS did nothing wrong. Obviously, it should not have been so explicit in targeting certain groups by utilizing certain search terms and so forth. But that's it. There's no more to it. And certainly no scandal, nothing that would back up Republicans' allegations of political misconduct, let alone of a vacuum or crisis of leadership that leads to the Oval Office.

And while the focus has mostly been on the IRS, with the director getting fired, punishments being meted out, apologies and mea culpas coming from top to bottom, and President Obama targeting the IRS for blame, the spotlight really needs to be on the system as a whole along with the various groups -- across the spectrum, of all sizes -- that have been taking advantage of a tax code that needs drastic reform.

Thankfully, some of that is already happening, though of course it's unlikely to get much attention. Faux scandals, after all, are so much more entertaining.

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  • 1. Miller not only didn't know about this, he wasn't the head of the IRS when this "scandal" was happening. I argued yesterday that given Miller was fired without cause, we might as well impeach Obama. Neither had anything to do with it. Obama's as good a scapegoat as Miller.

    2. My understanding is that the Cincinnati group wasn't even deciding on tax exempt status; they were deciding whether these groups had to disclose donors. So it is even more trivial than generally understood.

    3. I haven't heard any reporting, so I figure that Crossroads GPS didn't ask the IRS to rule on them as a 501(c)(4) group. Groups are not required to ask permission for this filing status. They can just file as one and if the IRS has a problem, they can bring it up. It normally takes 5-6 years for this process. Like I said: I'm not sure. But that would make sense. It could also be that the IRS was afraid of Rove, of course. Or both.

    4. I tend to think that a number of invalid Tea Party groups were allowed 501(c)(4) status in that big push at the end. I'd like to see some reporting on that.

    By Anonymous Frank Moraes, at 2:27 PM  

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