As you've probably heard by now, the head of the IRS's tax-exempt organizations divison, Lois Lerner, apologized on Friday that the agency targeted 501(c)4 organizations with "Tea Party" and "patriot" in their names. Lerner said this was not done out of political bias, because, as we all know, those words don't hold any political overtones.
What we also now know is that the audit from the IRS watchdog — the Treasury Inspector General of Tax Administration — will come out this week and say that the agents in Cincinnati who are being thrown under the bus for this fiasco actually expanded their search to include groups seeking to “make America a better place to live” or “criticize how the country is being run” and, as ABC reports, "limited government." So, if you weren't sure if the IRS was targeting groups based on political motivations before, you have to agree that this sorta looks bad! Add in the fact that former IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman testified in March 2012 that "There's absolutely no targeting," when Ms. Lerner knew about the targeting in June 2011 and this looks SUPER bad!
The President has said this targeting by the Service is "outrageous and there’s no place for it," vowing that someone will get to the bottom of this, but the Republicans are way ahead of him as hearings are already being scheduled. So if you enjoy bad political theater, get your DVRs ready.
Anyway, there's a roundup of things from across the web below and while it's still early on in this shitshow to come to any concrete conclusions, we're currently in the "this was gross incompetence in action" camp that Kevin Drum discusses (don't worry, the counter to this is below).
Simply, if you want your organization to be in compliance with 501(c)4, the majority of your activities have to be non-political. In their search for applicants who were not complying with those rules, the IRS employees involved figured they'd make their lives easier by searching for things like "Tea Party" and "patriot" in the names of the organizations. The problem is they didn't apply that kind of scrutiny to groups with "progressive" or "change" or "tea baggers" and the like in their names. Omitting those investigative measures makes things look incredibly biased against
conversative conservative organizations. It doesn't matter if there was an explicitly political motive or not. The appearance is that these employees were using the political viewpoints of the Tea Party groups to conduct their investigations into compliance with 501(c)4.
The Washington Post Editorial Board, like Drum, wonders if stupid is as stupid does and they can't be trusted to find out:
If it was not partisanship, was it incompetence? Stupidity, on a breathtaking scale? At this point, the IRS has lost any standing to determine and report on what exactly happened. Certainly Congress will investigate, as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) promised. Mr. Obama also should guarantee an unimpeachably independent inquiry.
Tax Analysts' Jeremy Scott continues with the dummies narrative:
The incompetence boggles the mind. It’s also bewildering how the Service could sit in front of GOP lawmakers and chastise them for underfunding tax enforcement when employees were using some of those supposedly precious funds to conduct a politically charged vendetta against conservative exempt organizations.
But at The Daily Beast, Megan McArdle doesn't buy it; that is, the IRS didn't need the magic words of "Tea Party" and "patriot" if they were doing investigations the right way:
[The IRS] have all the information they need to do that without any special filter. They can search for the date of the application. If what you're concerned about is that most of the new groups being created are in fact thinly disguised electioneering vehicles, then what you want to do is take a random sample of the new groups, review them, and see what percentage turn out to be self-dealing or otherwised engaged in inappropriate behavior. Instead, the IRS method for dealing with the volume was to take an unrandom sample. And how did they decide that you deserved extra scrutiny? Because you had "tea party" or "patriot" in your name. Since the Tea Party was a brand new movement in 2010, they couldn't possibly have had any data indicating that such groups were more likely to be doing something improper. So how exactly did they come up with this filter? There is no answer that does not ultimately resolve to "political bias".
Ezra Klein reminded everyone on Friday that most people are missing the broader point, which is that all 501(c)4 organizations need to be scrutinized:
The problem wasn’t that the IRS was skeptical of tea party groups registering as 501(c)4s. It’s that it hasn’t been skeptical of Organizing for America, Crossroads GPS, Priorities USA and Heritage Action Fund registering as 501(c)4s. The IRS should be treating all these groups equally and appropriately — which would mean much more harshly.
Writing at CNN, Michael Macleod-Ball and Gabe Rottman of the ACLU's Washington Legislative Office opine, "It shouldn't need to be said: Even the tea party deserves First Amendment protection."
[T]he IRS apology shows that concerns over selective enforcement are prescient. Those in power will always be tempted to use political speech restrictions against opposing candidates or causes.
The New York Times' Ross Douthat says the anxiety created at the IRS about Tea Party groups might be a "Brown Scare":
Where might an enterprising, public-spirited I.R.S. agent get the idea that a Tea Party group deserved more scrutiny from the government than the typical band of activists seeking tax-exempt status? Oh, I don’t know: why, maybe from all the prominent voices who spent the first two years of the Obama era worrying that the Tea Party wasn’t just a typically messy expression of citizen activism, but something much darker — an expression of crypto-fascist, crypto-racist rage, part Timothy McVeigh and part Bull Connor, potentially carrying a wave of terrorist violence in its wings.
Naturally, the Republicans are all over this and Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) thinks it goes higher than just the offenders in Cincinnati:
“I just don’t buy that this was a couple rogue IRS employees,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “There’s evidence that higher level supervisors were aware of this.”
Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) wants Acting Commissioner Steven Miller to resign:
“It is clear the IRS cannot operate with even a shred of the American people’s confidence under the current leadership,” Rubio wrote in a letter today to Treasury secretary Jack Lew. “Therefore, I strongly urge that you and President Obama demand the IRS Commissioner’s resignation, effectively immediately. No government agency that has behaved in such a manner can possibly instill any faith and respect from the American public.”
Rep. Michael Turner (R-OH) has got the ball rolling on the impassable legislation front:
"Americans of all political beliefs have been rightly outraged by the revelation of the IRS's efforts to target certain political organizations," Turner said Monday. "The fact that this could occur with little to no corrective action against those who seek to silence their fellow citizens is unacceptable." Under current law, IRS workers who discriminate against taxpayers can already be fired, although discretion lies with their supervisors. Turner's bill would boost the maximum penalty to a $5,000 fine, five years in prison or both.
And believe it or not, even Democrats are jumping on the pile:
Monday morning, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) all issued statements denouncing the IRS and calling for an investigation and corrective action. “These actions by the IRS are an outrageous abuse of power and a breach of the public’s trust. Targeting groups based on their political views is not only inappropriate but it is intolerable,” Baucus said, adding: “The IRS will now be the ones put under additional scrutiny.” […] “The actions of the IRS are unacceptable and un-American,” [Mancin] said. “Government agencies using their bureaucratic muscle to target Americans for their political beliefs cannot be tolerated. The president must immediately condemn this attack on our values, find those individuals in his Administration who are responsible and fire them.” Added Kaine: ”There’s no excuse for ideological discrimination in our system. The Administration should take swift action to get to the bottom of this to ensure those responsible for misconduct are held accountable and establish appropriate safeguards to prevent this from ever happening again.”