Remember When the IRS Targeted Liberals?

by Linda Beale

Remember When the IRS Targeted Liberals?

Salon’s Alex Seitz-Wald has a story that provides additional context on the difficulty the IRS has in determining appropriate filters for political activity. See “When the IRS targeted liberals: Under George W. Bush, it went after the NAACP, Greenpeace, and even a liberal church,” (May 14, 2013).

While few are defending the Internal Revenue Service for targeting some 300 conservative groups, there are two critical pieces of context missing from the conventional wisdom on the “scandal.” First, at least from what we know so far, the groups were not targeted in a political vendetta — but rather were executing a makeshift enforcement test (an ugly one, mind you) for IRS employees tasked with separating political groups not allowed to claim tax-exempt status, from bona fide social welfare organizations. Employees are given almost zero official guidance on how to do that, so they went after Tea Party groups because those seemed like they might be political. Keep in mind, the commissioner of the IRS at the time was a Bush appointee.

The second is that while this is the first time this kind of thing has become a national scandal, it’s not the first time such activity has occurred.

The article goes on to list the IRS varied record on successful filtering and investigation of political activities, including:

  1. The investigation of All Saints Episcopal, a large (liberal) church in Pasadena, because of an anti-war sermon the Sunday before the 2004 election, about Bush’s preemptive war doctrine–a case that was not closed until 2007, when the IRS concluded that the church had violated rules but did not revoke its tax-exempt status;
  2. The failure to investigate two large (conservative) churches in Ohio that were apparently engaged in direct political campaigning for the Republican gubernatorial candidate, who even benefited from flights on church planes, inspite of the complaint from a group of religious leaders about the violations;
  3. The quick closing of an audit, without any action, of The Living Word Christian Center, a (conservative) church in Minnesota, after its pastor endorsed Michele Bachmann from the pulpit in 2006;
  4. The 2004 audit targeting the (liberal) NAACP for criticising Bush for being the first sitting president to fail to address the organization at its annual meeting;
  5. The ability of a right-wing group called “Public Interest Watch“, funded almost entirely by Exxon Mobile in one year, to get the IRS to instigate an examination of Greenpeace, an organization critical of Exxon Mobile for its failure to address climate change, in 2006.

Perhaps more interesting–The Senate held a hearing on nonprofits’ political activity under the REPUBLICAN chair of the Finance Committee, who wanted the IRS to come down harder on enforcement of the rules and noted the need to provide legislative clarity about drawing the line between politics and social welfare, the same issue that the right-wing press is accusing the IRS of failing on today.

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