The Obama Administration’s Internal Revenue Service scandal isn’t what it used to be.
The New York Times reports that several of the Tea Party organizations the IRS scrutinized to determine whether they were genuine “social welfare” groups entitled to tax exemptions were engaged primarily in political activity.
The Ohio Liberty Coalition campaigned openly for last year’s Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, the newspaper says. An Alabama Tea Party group sponsored get-out-the-vote training “dedicated to ‘the defeat of President Barack Obama.’ ” A so-called veterans organization redirected some of its money to the campaign of a GOP candidate for Congress.
When the IRS looked into these groups, it was doing its job. The agency would have been wrong to determine that conservative organizations should automatically be denied charitable status because they must be fronts for political action groups. But the IRS didn’t engage in such profiling.
And if many of the groups were fronts, that’s relevant. As more information emerges, it seems that the IRS often had probable cause to make the inquiries it did, and that it did not systematically violate due process.
Federal law says that overtly political groups should not be granted tax-exempt status. Such status belongs to groups that truly promote social welfare. When a political organization uses its social-service mission to mask a political agenda, on the right or left, the IRS has a duty to investigate.
The Times says “close examination of these groups and others reveals an array of election activities that tax experts and former IRS officials said would provide a legitimate basis for flagging them for closer review.” The newspaper quoted Ohio State University law professor Donald Tobin: “While some of the IRS questions may have been over-broad, you can look at some of these groups and understand why these questions were being asked.”
Bloomberg News reports that the IRS may have also looked closely at left-wing groups that claimed to be performing a social service, but were actively engaged in electioneering.
To be sure, some IRS workers didn’t much like Tea Party groups and asked the organizations questions that were too personal, accusatory, or beyond their authority. Some were simply rude.
That’s abusive, and such conduct should be sanctioned. But it is not evidence of an agency running roughshod over Americans and their rights. The story here may be that the IRS did its job, albeit crudely.
When Richard Nixon was president, his top aides routinely ordered the IRS to audit people the administration considered enemies. Mr. Nixon was certainly aware of at least some of these audits.
Here, the IRS was acting on its own, doing something it was supposed to do: Questioning the tax exemptions of groups that were not charitable, but primarily political. These two scandals are not at all alike. The current affair looks less like a scandal at all.