The IRS and the Ongoing (C)4 Fiasco

Republicans are going to have a hard time this week deciding whether to spend all their time shrieking about Benghazi! or getting the troops stirred up about the “IRS scandal.” It’s a tough choice: degrading Hillary Clinton’s public standing (not least among the self-identified Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who’ve grown relatively fond of her) is a hugely important mission, and Benghazi! offers many fine months if not years of fishing expeditions and unfocused allegations. But on the other hand, the very idea that “Obama’s IRS” has been targeting conservatives for enforcement action has to be the ultimate, impossible-to-top candy-coated paranoid treat for the GOP. As the New York Times‘ Weisman and Wald blandly put it:

[T]he accusations of I.R.S. abuse are sure to fuel an effort that appears to be uniting dispirited Republicans and their conservative political base: investigating Mr. Obama and his administration. Republicans are pushing a portrayal of an administration overreaching its authority and punishing its enemies.

I’d go a little further than that: this subject provides a context in which sober-sounding GOP solons just concerned with reining in “abuses of authority” can make common cause with the completely unhinged conservative fringe groups and personalities who have all along argued the Obama administration was preparing concentration camps for them and getting ready to shut down the churches.

And indeed, to those uninterested in nuances, the headlines about the IRS sound legitimately terrifying to those disposed to think of the current administration as quasi-totalitarian.

I’ve always thought the deliberate use of the IRS against “political enemies” was the one unambiguously impeachable offense committed by Richard Nixon, worst than most of the acts that came to be known as “Watergate” put together. If there was any evidence the Obama White House similarly instructed the taxman to go after conservatives as “enemies,” I’d be outraged, too.

But anyone actually interested in facts has to acknowledge that what seems to have been going on in the Cincinnati field office of the IRS that was giving special scrutiny to “anti-government” applicants for 501(c)(4) tax-exempt organization status is a frantic finger-in-the-dike effort to stem a massive expansion of (c)(4) activity that was threatening to transform American politics.

If this is an unfamiliar topic for you, I strongly recommend Ezra Klein’s lucid piece at Wonkblog today on how (c)(4)’s, which do not have to disclose donors, have almost overnight become the preferred vehicle for electioneering activity (especially, though not exclusively, among conservatives), precisely the activity they are supposed to avoid to retain that status. I have a bit of a personal perspective here, having worked for the Democratic Leadership Council during a long period when it was under semi-constant attack by the IRS as an organization that was “too political” to retain (c)(4) status, mainly because of its name. The DLC never gave a dime to (or endorsed) a candidate for office; never ran a political ad; and devoted most of its resources to activities clearly within the law. The thinly disguised campaign PACs now flooding the (c)(4) ranks are routinely doing things that would have brought down the wrath of the IRS very publicly and emphatically not that long ago. Today, however, there are just too many of them, and too little guidance from Congress and the courts. So IRS field personnel (perhaps with guidance from the higher-ups, perhaps not), as they often do, got selective, and that’s where the stupid “targeting” of conservative groups almost certainly began.

This needs to stop, instantly, and it’s legitimate to question how the practice started and how extensive it became. But let’s remember who the “victims” are here: not regular conservative folk who are suddenly going to see IRS auditors on their doorsteps, but political operatives trying to move large sums of money across a political chessboard to influence elections. If anything, as Ezra says, the “scandal” here is that the IRS didn’t go after the really big targets:

But the particular bias people are angry about is the opposite of the bias they should be angry about. The problem wasn’t that the IRS was skeptical of tea party groups registering as 501(c)4s. It’s that it hasn’t been skeptical of Organizing for America, Crossroads GPS, Priorities USA and Heritage Action Fund registering as 501(c)4s. The IRS should be treating all these groups equally and appropriately — which would mean much more harshly.

Instead, the IRS has permitted 501(c)4s to grow into something monstrous. And if they cower in the aftermath of this embarrassment, it might make matters even worse.

So it would be nice if we could have a serious discussion of the abuse of tax exemptions to make it easier to pour obscene amounts of anonymous money into vicious and stupid campaign ads aimed at boosting the profits of the anonymous sources paying for them. But in part because this is a hopelessly technical subject, we are instead going to have a “debate” (and endless down-in-the-weeds “investigations”) of IRS abuses. And again, it’s the one topic that might distract Republicans from Benghazi!

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.