IRS’s real mistake: not going after enough groups

by David Safier

The IRS absolutely should not have targeted groups with "Tea Party" in their names for special scrutiny. As Ezra Klein points out, the IRS should have used a far broader brush, going after the progressive Organizing for America as well as conservative groups like Crossroads GPS, Priorities USA and Heritage Action Fund. The problem wasn't the Tea Party. It wasn't right or left. The problem was misuse of a nonprofit category by both sides. And it may be, though we don't have the details, that the IRS corrected the problem after it found out about the "Tea Party" targeting.

All these groups registered as 501(c)4s. That means they're tax exempt and they don't have to disclose their donors. The tradeoff for the groups is supposed to be, they're not political. Their purpose is supposed to be to "promote the common good and general welfare of the people of the community as a whole.” As we all know, the groups are highly political, and the only welfare they want to promote is the welfare of their chosen candidates and the political parties they belong to. That means they were stretching their 501(c)4 designation beyond the breaking point. And the IRS should have investigated and clamped down, regardless of which political horse each group was betting on.

Karl Rove wasn’t the first to try to use the 501(c)4 to solicit anonymous political donations. But he was the first big player to do it. And the expectation was that he’d had a clever idea that the IRS would quickly reject. “A lot of people thought Rove would get smacked back by the IRS,” says Hasen. “It didn’t happen. And then 501(c)4s exploded.”

Now everyone from Moveon.org to the Heritage Foundation has a 501(c)4. The number of 501(c)4 applications the IRS is getting more than doubled in recent years, rising from 1,500 to more than 3,400.

It's hard to tell whether the IRS employees were being political or clumsy and stupid. If they used the "Tea Party" designation to root out conservative groups, that were being political. If they used "Tea Party" as an easy shorthand to find political groups hiding behind the 501(c)4 designation, they were being clumsy and stupid. And they were probably being cautious as well, going after the small fish that would have been easier to hook while allowing the great white sharks on both sides to roam free.

Unfortunately, this IRS thing gives the right a legitimate reason to howl — and who doesn't pay attention when people howl about the IRS? — which amplifies their bogus concerns about the "worse than the original 9/11" Bengazi attack.  We know the right has a lifetime subscription to the Overblown Scandal of the Month Club, and it's a shame they were handed this IRS blunder to scream about.

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