The Party Line on the IRS Scandal: Justifiable Harassment

Just because the IRS has no friends doesn't mean that the administration's most reliable allies in the media can't engage in some pushback against the narrative emerging about harassment and bullying of conservative groups by the tax agency.

And leading the media charge is the president's most ardent supporter, the New York Times.

A no-brainer, yes? As expected as the morning sun -- except that the Times appears to have taken the brazen tack that IRS scrutiny of conservative groups was necessary and proper, that they should have been more aggressive, and that conservative non-profits "masquerade" as a "social welfare" organizations.

First, an editorial headlined "IRS Audits are Condemned." The passive voice is deliberate:

The Internal Revenue Service was absolutely correct to look into the abuse of the tax code by political organizations masquerading as “social welfare” groups over the last three years. The agency’s mistake — and it was a serious one — was focusing on groups with “Tea Party” in their name or those criticizing how the country is run.

Unfortunately, it appears as though the I.R.S. looked only at conservative groups applying for the exemption, an inexcusable mistake given its power over individuals, nonprofits and corporations, and the potential for abuse. It’s important to point out, though, that this is a far cry from President Richard Nixon’s interest in intimidating his political enemies through selective audits of personal tax records. There is no evidence President Obama knew about the audits by the I.R.S. The groups involved were seeking not to pay taxes on large amounts of income by claiming that they promote social welfare. No one has an automatic right to this tax exemption; those seeking one should expect close scrutiny from the government to ensure it is not evading taxes.

For many years, however, the I.R.S. hasn’t provided it. Democratic groups were the first ones to start abusing their social-welfare tax status in the 2004 election; the Republicans followed suit and became the biggest players in this field beginning in 2008. Far bigger than any Tea Party group, Crossroads GPS nakedly violated the tax code by spending tens of millions on behalf of Republican candidates, claiming it wasn’t political because it ran only “issue ads.” It never lost its tax exemption.

In 2011, when the director of the agency’s tax-exempt division, Lois Lerner, heard about Tea Party applicants being singled out for review through keyword searches in applications, she ordered that the focus be broadened to all political or lobbying organizations seeking such an exemption, The New York Times reported. Agency employees didn’t seem to get the message and kept the focus, wrongly, on conservative groups.

We're seeing a lot of these bullet points around lefty sites and media outlets. The IRS was just doing its job, but "mistakes" were made. This isn't Watergate because Nixon went after individuals and sought to intimidate them (talk to some tea party folk and ask if they didn't feel "intimidated"). The proliferation of political groups purporting to be social welfare organizations justified the scrutiny. And despite being told to cease and desist in their efforts to target conservative groups, somehow -- inexplicably -- those "lower level" employees in Cincinnati kept up with the targeting efforts.

The major talking point is that the tea party groups don't deserve tax-exempt status because they're partisan in nature and so the IRS audits were proper. The only problem, says the Times, is that they were singled out. Piously, the Times proclaims their support for looking at both Democratic and Republican groups, but the whole point of developing criteria to separate applications for tax-exempt status was supposedly to make the job of the auditors easier. There were far more groups with "tea party" or "patriot" in their name than any liberal-type designation.

You would have to be brain-dead if you worked for the IRS and didn't realize the dangerous implications of developing such criteria. Someone in the agency wasn't looking so much for a short cut to combing through tax-exempt applications, as much as they were looking for an excuse to target conservatives. A political judgment had been made that tea party and other conservative groups weren't worthy of tax-exempt status while liberal groups were.

The Times continues this theme in one of their only "news" stories about the scandal, "Uneven I.R.S. Scrutiny Seen in Political Spending by Big Tax-Exempt Groups":

Over the last two years, government watchdog groups filed more than a dozen complaints with the Internal Revenue Service seeking inquiries into whether large nonprofit organizations like those founded by the Republican political operative Karl Rove and former Obama administration aides had violated their tax-exempt status by spending tens of millions of dollars on political advertising.

The I.R.S. never responded.

During the same period, the agency singled out dozens of Tea Party-inspired groups that had applied for I.R.S. recognition, officials acknowledged on Friday, subjecting them to rounds of detailed questioning about their political activities. None of those groups were big spenders on political advertising; most were local Tea Party organizations with shoestring budgets.

For the I.R.S.’s bipartisan legion of critics, the agency’s record has underscored its contradictory and seemingly confused response to the fastest-growing corner in the world of unlimited political spending: tax-exempt groups that have paid for at least half a billion dollars in campaign ads during the last two election cycles.