On Wednesday, President Obama fired the head of the Internal Revenue Service, the first sacrificial lamb brought down after the alleged “targeting” of conservative political groups by the IRS. Obama declared, “Americans are right to be angry about it.” Call me out of step, but I am angrier that the president is joining the rush to judgment.
All that is known for sure is that some IRS functionaries took a shorthand route to identify partisan political groups that might be pretending not to be political so that they could get the tax-exempt status available to social welfare organizations. The IRS employed various key words, such as “tea party” and “patriot,” and that is how it got into trouble. The IRS now stands accused of singling out conservatives for special scrutiny, even though such groups comprised just a third of the nearly 300 organizations picked out for extra attention.
It is worth noting that, though applications from some conservative organizations were slowed down, few, if any, were rejected. By law, any group whose primary purpose is to support the election of one set of candidates and the defeat of others should not be eligible for the 501(c)(4) designation. In practice, however, even Karl Rove and Barack Obama can weasel their way into a 501(c)(4) tax exemption that also provides anonymity for their fat cat corporate donors.
The actual scandal here is that so many campaign organizations are pretending to be no more politically involved than a group of volunteer firemen. Does anyone believe that the tea party groups that were supposedly so unfairly treated by the IRS are politically disinterested social welfare associations? Yet, everyone from the president to Jon Stewart to the mainstream media is buying into the Republican scenario that the IRS was carrying out a vendetta against the right wing.
What the IRS people did was not smartly conceived or executed, but there is, as yet, no evidence that they were trying to do anything more than their jobs. They were not helped in that by politicians in Washington who have so fuzzed up the campaign laws in order to benefit their political benefactors that it is not a simple thing for an IRS analyst to get things right when applying the 501(c)(4) statute. A big snafu was committed, but it is wildly premature for House Speaker John A. Boehner to demand that someone go to jail, as he did Wednesday.
The feigned outrage of Boehner and his compatriots is rather transparently part of the Republicans’ ceaseless campaign to undercut the president at every turn. They could hardly be expected to let an opportunity as ripe as the IRS flap pass them by. For his part, the president, embroiled in battles with his enemies on so many fronts, clearly decided he should get out in front on this one and put on his own show of outrage.
If some beleaguered IRS bureaucrats have their careers ruined, chalk it up to collateral damage in Washington’s permanent partisan war.