In defense of the IRS
Employees were sloppy, but not political, in targeting conservative groups.

IRS by Shutterstock.com

Article Highlights

  • A strong meme is developing among conservatives about the IRS.

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  • If one looks at the targets and non-targets, it is far more a reflection of IRS ineptitude than a conspiracy.

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A strong meme is developing among conservatives about the IRS, expressed most directly in the headline of a piece in the Washington Examiner by Tim Carney, "The IRS is Deeply Political and Very Democratic." The idea is that the IRS would by its very character and nature target conservatives and Republicans. And the Inspector General's report makes it clear that the key words used by agency employees to consider and screen the flood of applications for 501(c)4 status after the Citizens United decision focused on conservative groups and conservative oriented terms. But there is another reality here that should not be lost. If the IRS, or Obama Administration political officials, were intent on using the tax process to damage Republicans before the 2012 election, why did they go after a bunch of little guys-- tiny organizations without much funding-- while leaving the giants to run rampant all over the political field?

If the IRS or the White House were intent on going after Republicans and conservatives who were using 501(c)4 status to influence elections, why would they leave American Crossroads GPS and the American Action Network alone, each organizations that made no bones about their use of the status simply to hide their donors? The idea that these organizations had or have anything to do with "social welfare" is almost farcical, and that is why every major campaign finance reform group and many others pushed the IRS hard to apply its own regulations to them and other groups-- now including the Obama campaign adjunct Organizing for America-- not because of their political coloration but because they openly flouted the intent and clear language of the law and were ignored by a complacent and disorganized IRS, one that at its leadership level was probably cowed by the likelihood that doing its job against these organizations would be met by fierce criticism from Mitch McConnell, the Wall Street Journal editorial page and many others.

The IRS brass, from its Bush-appointed head on down to its top career officials like Lois Lerner, wanted no part of a major political fight that would get the agency caught in a partisan crossfire, and so put their collective heads in the sand about the real abuses of the tax law going on around them. In the meantime, a slew of other organizations, encouraged by the example of American Crossroads, saw an opening and flooded the agency with applications, leaving staffers to find their own ways to cope-- and they did so repeatedly in foolish and destructive ways. But if one looks at the targets and non-targets, it is far more a reflection of IRS ineptitude and cowardice than a conspiracy to damage Republicans in the election.

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About the Author

 

Norman J.
Ornstein
  • Norman Ornstein is a long-time observer of Congress and politics. He is a contributing editor and columnist for National Journal and The Atlantic and is an election eve analyst for BBC News. He served as codirector of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project and participates in AEI's Election Watch series. He also served as a senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission. Mr. Ornstein led a working group of scholars and practitioners that helped shape the law, known as McCain-Feingold, that reformed the campaign financing system. He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His many books include The Permanent Campaign and Its Future (AEI Press, 2000); The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, with Thomas E. Mann (Oxford University Press, 2006, named by the Washington Post one of the best books of 2006 and called by The Economist "a classic"); and, most recently, the New York Times bestseller, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, also with Tom Mann, published in May 2012 by Basic Books. It was named as one of 2012's best books on pollitics by The New Yorker and one of the best books of the year by the Washington Post.
  • Phone: 202-862-5893
    Email: nornstein@aei.org
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