Two Rather Important Details About the IRS “Scandal”

I know we’re already getting into the post-factual stage of what Roll Call‘s Stu Rothenberg is gleefully calling the “triple play” of Obama “scandals,” where the focus is on alleged cover-ups and who-knew-what-when and Big Narratives and all sorts of third- and fourth-order considerations. But there are two aspects of the “IRS Scandal” that keep nagging at me.

The first is nicely covered by TNR’s Noam Scheiber today: the applications for 501(c)(4) status that are at issue are not part and parcel of some burdensome government regulation of political speech. They are voluntary, and simply provide the applicant an advance assurance of tax-exempt status before they file their tax returns for a given year. If they are reasonably sure they aren’t afoul of the rules for 501(c)(4) organizations, they don’t need the certification at all. So the idea that the IRS was “shutting down” Tea Party and other groups by sitting on their applications or requiring them to deal with burdensome questionnaires is an exaggeration from the get-go. Besides, most groups like this don’t (and shouldn’t) wind up having the sort of “profits” that generate tax liability to begin with.

But the whole role of the IRS in this “scandal” raises a much more fundamental question. If the entity in question wasn’t the IRS but the FEC (hard as it is to imagine the FEC having any “teeth” to “bite” political advocacy and campaign groups), would anyone other than campaign finance wonks care about this whole issue? Probably not. And that’s not because in this kind of case the IRS was in a position to kick down doors and take serious action against the groups in question (which, again, probably had little or no tax liability unless they were really running a crooked game). It’s because the IRS is a great national devil-figure with a history of using over-aggressive tactics against people without the resources to fight them, and the idea of that agency “targeting” anyone is quite naturally frightening, even if the actual consequences of being “targeted” in these cases were not that serious.

Yeah, some groups undoubtedly incurred unnecessary legal expenses in dealing with IRS pettifogging, and the more paranoid among them probably feared ancillary tax actions against individuals. But before we all decide this incident represented a big step towards totalitarian government, a closer look at the actual situation would be helpful.

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.