The IRS "scandal" involving its investigation of organizations with "Tea Party" or "Patriot" in their names demonstrates yet again that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. What on first hearing sounds like an abuse of power is actually the IRS's awkward attempt to comply with the law.
Section 501(c) of the Internal Revenue Code identifies a series of organizations entitled to exemption from Federal taxation (a form of government subsidy). The IRS is responsible for awarding 501(c) designations and for making sure they're not being misused.
Section 501(c)(4) provides the exemption to "social welfare" organizations, which are prohibited from supporting candidates but are allowed to advocate policy positions. The social-welfare designation has been used by many obviously partisan organizations to whitewash their campaign activities while concealing the names of their donors. This has been extensively documented; and while there are certainly abuses on both sides of the aisle, it's clear that the social-welfare dodge has been of particular value to Republicans.
Given that fact, and given the statutory requirement that the IRS confirm that social welfare organizations are indeed what they purport to be, it makes sense that the Service would begin its process by searching for key words associated with Republican crypto-campaigns, including "Tea Party" and "Patriot." That this turned out to miss the biggest offenders in the make-believe social welfare category is a matter of bad luck, or at worst a statement about the ham-handedness of the IRS Division of Exempt Organizations.
But it's unreasonable to yell and scream and jump up and down about the IRS's doing what the Congress told it to do, which is to make sure that tax-exempt status is used only by qualifying organizations. And if the IRS is doing a rotten job at this, the Congress has two options: relieve it of the responsibility for ascertaining what's really going on behind that social-welfare blind and hand the burdensome task over to the Federal Election Commission; or fund the IRS at a level commensurate with the huge and varied activities for which it's responsible. Starving the IRS has been a favorite back-door method for starving the government til it's small enough to drown in a bathtub--particularly convenient when the government-starvation idea is so firmly rejected by the democratic process.
Of course elected officials have to pretend to be shocked, shocked that the IRS is doing its job when its job (as in this case) involved afflicting the comfortable; but the rest of us should be clear about what's going on here.
The scandal is not that the IRS tried to investigate whether certain groups were actually social welfare agencies within the meaning of the statute. The scandal is that the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision turned social welfare agencies into campaign slush funds, making it easy for corporations and wealthy individuals to buy elections.
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