Sometimes people who are dismissed as being paranoid have good reason to be paranoid.
Case in point: The admission last week by the chief of the Internal Revenue Service that the agency targeted conservative organizations seeking status as tax exempt social welfare groups.
While both liberal and conservative groups were taking advantage of the “Citizens United” ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in January 2010 to create organizations that engage in political spending, the agency focused primarily on the applications from organizations that had words such as “tea party” and “patriot” in the name in questioning the validity of those organizations. A word like “progressive” in the name of a group, for instance, didn’t spark similar interest by the agency.
IRS officials later expanded their increased focus to groups that criticized “how the country was being run.” Issues criteria such as government spending, government debt, taxes, educating with advocacy and lobbying to make America better were also cause for IRS targeting. Groups stating that they liked the way the nation was being governed didn’t see additional scrutiny from the agency.
That meant that groups seen as unfriendly toward Democrats and the White House came under more intense scrutiny than organizations that leaned to the left. It also means that organizations were being targeted based on political speech. According to documents that Reuters News Service received from the U.S. Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, the increased scrutiny of the conservative groups started in March 2010, just three months after the high court ruling.
That this happened at all is an outrage. That then-IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman lied to congressional Republicans about the unfair IRS screening in March 2012 is worse.
“It is unconscionable that in the United States of America, groups were unfairly targeted by a government agency for exercising their First Amendment rights,” U.S. Johnny Isakson, R-Marietta, said Friday. “Americans from every political affiliation should be outraged by this discrimination. I look forward to hearing additional information from the agency as to how it will guarantee this type of harassment is not continued in the future on any level.”
We agree with Isakson. We also wonder whether the apology issued last week by Lois Lerner, chief of the IRS’s tax-exempt groups unit, would have been issued last week had it not been for the pending release this week of the Treasury Inspector General’s report. Lerner learned of the targeting in June 2011, nearly two years ago. To her credit, she ordered a broader criteria for scrutinizing applicants for the 501(c)4 tax-exempt status, but that also would have been the appropriate time to apologize. Instead, this issue has been batted around between Republican and Democratic lawmakers for far too long. The report coming out this week was the result of U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., requesting it last year.
The 501(c)4 organizations are prized by political advocates because they’re not required to disclose donors’ names. Whether that is a healthy situation for American politics and whether those qualification requirements should be tightened are other topics. But what should not be up for debate is whether an organization should be singled out simply because of the political views of its members and supporters.
Government only works when those being governed believe that rules and regulations are being applied fairly, particularly across political lines. In this case, it is clear that they have not.