Conservatives are angry -- perhaps with justification -- at the IRS, and not just for the usual reasons
The Internal Revenue Service’s special scrutiny of small-government groups applying for tax-exempt status went beyond keyword hunts for organizations with “Tea Party” or “Patriot” in their names, to a more overtly ideological search for applicants seeking to “make America a better place to live” or “criticize how the country is being run,” according to part of a draft audit by the inspector general that has been given to Capitol Hill.
The head of the division on tax-exempt organizations, Lois Lerner, was briefed on the effort in June 2011, seemingly contradicting her assertion on Friday that she learned of the effort from news reports. But the audit shows that she seemed to work hard to rein in the focus on conservatives and change it to a look at any political advocacy group of any stripe.
Although conservatives may have some valid reasons for their howls of outrage, I cannot muster much sympathy. For me, the issue comes down to one word: Hypocrisy.
Back in the Reagan/Bush I era, not a single conservative complained when the Christic Institute had its 501(c)3 status
revoked after the group filed a lawsuit against various CIA operatives. The IRS claimed that the suit was politically motivated, and that the Institute was a partisan group. Yet the Institute's representatives had never endorsed a political party, and always spoke with what I considered genuine disdain for both Democratic and Republican leaders. From what I could gather, that organization attracted the kind of silly-billy idealists who like to talk-talk-talk about the need to form a new party, the same way mice like to talk-talk-talk about the need to bell the cat.
(There was this one fellow associated with the Christic Institute -- Mark Something-Or-Other -- who spent much of 1992 spreading dark tales about Bill Clinton's alleged involvement with cocaine smuggling. Remember those rumors? They all started with Mark. It seems pretty obvious now that he was an operative using Christic as cover, although that scenario wasn't so obvious at the time.)
By contrast, the various Tea Party organizations are Republicans-only clubs. Anyone who claims otherwise is a fool. At this point, I don't think that tactically-minded Democrats should wish such groups ill, since the teabaggers have, in their zeal, begun to do genuine harm to the GOP brand.
Why would Obama sic the IRS on the tea partiers? He ought to be making secret donations.
In this context, one should also discuss the question of when a church becomes taxable. To the best of my knowledge, no conservatives ever complained when the IRS threatened to revoke the tax-exempt status of any religious organizations that criticized the Iraq misadventure. (See, for example, this case
from 2005.) Yet everyone knows that many fundamentalist churches cling to their tax-free status even though they are little more than GOP propaganda outlets. This history
Also in 1993, the IRS investigated a small church in Binghamton, New York (the home church of radical anti-abortion activist Randall Terry, by the way). Pastor Daniel Little had been so outraged over the candidacy of then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton that he and his congregation took out a full-page ad that ran in USA Today and The Washington Times. With the headline “Christian Beware,” it accused Clinton of supporting “policies that are in rebellion to God’s Laws,” along with other vituperative attacks on the Democratic party and liberals generally.
It ended with the question, “How then can we vote for Bill Clinton?” just before it solicited “tax-deductible donations” to help fund even more such advertisements (and it did result in hundreds of contributions from all across the nation). This was perhaps one of the most blatant abuses of a church’s tax-exempt status that the IRS had ever seen, and it’s no wonder that it attracted quite a lot of attention, both positive and negative.
Eventually, in 1995, the IRS revoked the church’s tax-exempt status — but the church sued the IRS to get it back, with the help of Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice. Both a Washington, D.C. district judge and Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. ruled in favor of the IRS, however, dealing a symbolic blow both to the church and to Pat Robertson.
Symbolic? Absolutely. If the church does not intervene in any future political campaigns, it can continue claiming 501(c)(3) status and receive all of the attending benefits. Even the letter in which the original status was revoked did not, according to the IRS, “convert bona fide donations into income taxable to the Church.” The church can even reapply for official tax-exempt status.
Given the rich history of Republicans using various dodges to protect the tax-exempt status of their propaganda outlets, I cannot become too upset at any IRS officer who wanted to look into the issue. The keywords "Tea Party" and "patriot" might well provide a clue to possible abuse of the system. From the NYT:
The I.R.S. has been under pressure from Democrats and campaign finance watchdogs for some time to crack down on abuse of the 501(c)4 tax exemption, which is supposed to go to organizations primarily promoting “social welfare” but which is routinely granted to overt political advocacy groups with little or no social welfare work.
One thing's for sure: Conservatives might now enjoy more widespread sympathy if they had protested when the shoe was on the other foot.