IRS Scandal Is Outrageous, But It’s Not Watergate

In a week full of media outrage—from the semi-scandal, at best, of Benghazi, to the truly frightening and dangerous Justice Department investigation of the Associated Press (which I’ll write about Wednesday), the IRS’s  targeting of conservative groups for special review of their tax-exempt status lies somewhere in the middle.

On the face of it, it is an outrage. The IRS is supposed to be above partisan politics, administering the tax laws in a fair, impartial way. As President Obama said at his joint news conference with UK Prime Minister David Cameron on Monday:

If in fact IRS personnel engaged in the kind of practices that have been reported on, and were intentionally targeting conservative groups, then that’s outrageous, and there’s no place for it. And they have to be held fully accountable.

On Tuesday The Washington Post reported that the practice was more widespread than had been believed. Rather than being confined to a local office in Cincinnati, it also was happening in California and at the IRS’s headquarters in Washington, DC, where officials “sent queries to conservative groups asking about their donors.”

Former IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman (a George W. Bush appointee) and current acting commissioner, Steven T. Miller found out about the practices in May 2012, The Post reported.

The efforts, which occurred in 2011 and 2012, were aimed at evaluating applications for tax-exempt status by new political groups, which were multiplying mostly because of the rapid growth of the Tea Party movement.

Former Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein speaks on "Morning Joe" Monday. Source: MSNBC.

Former Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein speaks on “Morning Joe” Monday. Source: MSNBC.

The IRS has the legal right and responsibility to determine whether organizations are complying with the requirements of tax-exempt status (which is enormously beneficial). These 501(c)(4) groups—pardon the tax jargon—can engage in politics “so long as politics do not become their primary focus.” That requires some scrutiny and judgment calls.

Where the IRS went wrong was engaging in political profiling—i.e., singling out “Tea Party” or anti-tax or anti-government groups for more intense investigation. That, of course, is unacceptable and un-American. Congress should investigate fully and President Obama should set up an independent inquiry  to get to the bottom of it.

Yet despite some overwrought comparisons to Watergate, here’s the crucial difference, as Carl Bernstein, who along with Bob Woodward broke the original Watergate scandal wide open with The Post in the early 1970s, pointed out on Morning Joe Monday:

In the Nixon White House, we heard the president of the United States on tape saying use the IRS to get back at our enemies….We know a lot about President Obama, and I think the idea that he would want the IRS used for retribution, we have no evidence of such a thing…

Nixon’s White House was a criminal enterprise, as Woodward and Bernstein observed last year on the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in. Obama’s White House can be sloppy and secretive, but I don’t believe he would order such investigations. Nor would his former Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, in my view.

Right now, this appears to have been a badly wrongheaded effort by IRS bureaucrats that threatened the First Amendment rights of many citizens. Certainly some heads should roll.

But if there’s any indication anyone from Treasury, the White House, or the Obama reelection campaign encouraged IRA officers to snoop on conservative groups, then the smoking gun will become a prairie fire.

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