On July 1, 2013, Democratic Perspective examined the so-called “scandal” involving the IRS (Internal Revenue Service) and conservative groups seeking non-profit status. Although, there have been many claims by Republicans – most notably, Darrell Issa – that the Obama administration orchestrated IRS scrutiny in order to win re-election in 2012, there is absolutely no evidence of that. Indeed, there is little evidence that the actions extended beyond a couple of IRS agents in the Cincinnati office.
That said, here’s what we now know about the “scandal.”
In order to reduce salaries, the IRS transferred some of the responsibility for approving applications from non-profits to Cincinnati. More than a dozen or so accountants and agents were charged with processing thousands of applications a year, mostly from charities. According to testimony, these people rarely discussed politics. Not only was the office understaffed, it had experienced a succession of managers who had either resigned or sought promotion to other offices.
In January of 2010, the Supreme Court released the Citizens United decision which overturned many restrictions on political campaign spending. A few months later, the Tea Party movement began.
Further complicating matters was a subtle change in the definition of 501c(4)s. Originally, they were defined as being devoted “exclusively” to the public good. But over the years, the definition had been broadened to include organizations operating “primarily” for the public good. As a result, many of the groups seeking tax-exempt status were blatantly political. Some promised in their applications, under penalty of perjury, that they wouldn’t get involved in elections. Then they did just that.
For example, an application by The Ohio Liberty Coalition was delayed more than two years. That’s because the group sent emails to their members regarding Mitt Romney presidential campaign events and handed out Romney “door hangers” while canvassing neighborhoods. A pro-life group, The Coalition for Life of Iowa, was asked to explain how activities such as prayer meetings outside of Planned Parenthood clinics could be construed as educational as defined under 501c(3).
One can imagine how much difficulty this caused the Cincinnati office in dealing with a growing number of applications from such groups.
In order to more efficiently check applications which might not qualify for tax-exempt status, an IRS agent who, under oath, described himself as a conservative Republican, created a list of Internet search terms. The list included political sounding words and phrases such as, Tea Party, patriots, we the people and 9/12 Project. It also included progressive, blue, liberal, Israel and more.
Between April 2010 and April 2012, the IRS essentially placed such applications on hold. While it appears that no applications from conservative groups were denied during this period, only 4 were approved. However, applications from two liberal organizations were denied. And political groups weren’t the only ones facing extra scrutiny. Ryan Chittum of the Columbia Journalism Review reported that applications from a number of non-profit news organizations were also delayed and flagged for additional review.
So we know that there is absolutely no involvement by the White House, or even the leadership of the IRS, in these decisions. We know that the Commissioner of the IRS during the time period was Douglas Shulman, a Bush appointee. We know that Inspector General J. Russell George, who completed an investigation of the IRS following the complaints, was also a Bush appointee.
Despite these facts, and weeks of testimony before Issa’s House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, the Republican leadership and conservative media have not retracted their initial unfounded allegations.
Congressman Darrell Issa called Jay Carney “the president’s paid liar” when Carney tried to explain that the White House had no prior knowledge of the delays. Many Republicans have called the scandal “the smoking gun which would prove the corruption of the Obama administration.” Speaker of the House John Boehner claimed it is “inconceivable that Obama wasn’t informed about the investigation into the IRS.” He said, “Now, my question isn’t about who’s going to resign. My question is who’s going to jail over this scandal?” And
Tea Party leaders have called it “the jackboot of tyranny.”
Fox News screamed that “Analysis of White House visitor logs showed former IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman visited the White House at least 157 times under the Obama administration.” But after further examination, it was determined that most of the visits were in fact invitations to various social events, many of which, Shulman did not attend. It also included meetings to discuss implementation of the Affordable Care Act, budget issues and other administrative matters.
It should come as no surprise to even the most casual observers that, once again, conservatives are long on accusations. And short on facts.