While the information about the applications of tea party and other groups for tax-exempt 501(c)(4) "social welfare" status has been causing a feeding frenzy in the press, the Obama Administration continues to pander to the right by agreeing Monday that the use of terms designating primarily tea party and other groups with politically important terms in their names for scrutiny was intolerable. This is the kind of statement that makes it difficult for the IRS to retain employees, in an underfunded agency with a highly visible mission to collect taxes, including from people who don't want to pay them.
I'm not convinced that it was anything other than a political deaf ear to how the right would respond when it was disclosed. After all, there were thousands of new conservative groups seeking approval at the height of tea-party mania, and many of those groups were likely to be conducting considerable political activity that might make them inelgible for (c)(4) status. It is much more likely that targeting such groups was simply a political no-no because of the hue and cry that right-wingers in Congress and out would raise (as they have), rather than that it was an improper exercise of the IRS's limited resources to select groups for review.
Now Eric Holder has announced that he has ordered the Justice Department and FBI to investigate whether IRS officials broke any criminal laws in singling out groups for special scrutiny. Shear & Shane, Justice Department Opens Criminal Inquiry Into I.R.S. Audits, New York Times (May 14, 2013).
We don't investigate federal government officials for targeting US citizens for assassination by drone or for imprisoning US citizens in military brigs, but we start an investigation of mid-level IRS officials trying to find reasonable ways to filter the many political groups who apply for (c)(4) status to find those that are inelgible? Sounds like skewed priorities to me. Especially when the IRS's inspector general is already investigating the gency and is expected to release its report in a few days, describing in detail the way the agency screened political groups for extra scrutiny.
And of course, a Republican in Congress has already introduced a bill to make it illegal for the IRS to 'target' political groups.
Are there other options to prevent the recurrence of these issues? One idea is to publish all donors: If a (c)(4) is funded almost exclusively by a party machine, the public should know about it. Another idea is to eliminate tax-exempt status for any group that does any political campaigning or lobbying. Another is to require all tax-exempt groups to provide a full monthy report of activities on their website, listing every event and every contact of any member or agent of the group with any sitting official or any political candidate. The price of tax-exemption would be transparency regarding the organization's activities.