Tax Analysts Blog

Is the IRS Overzealous, Indifferent, or Both? Yes.

Posted on May 14, 2013

Seems like only yesterday that Tea Party groups were the villains, not the victims, in stories about nonprofit political activity. Because it was yesterday, or close to it.

For the last few days, Washington has been consumed by worry and indignation over an IRS admission that the agency was targeting conservative political groups for special scrutiny. But three weeks ago, the city was fretting about unchecked electioneering by many of those same groups – all of them ostensibly devoted to "social welfare," not partisan politics.

Then, as now, the IRS was under fire. But then, as opposed to now, the agency was trying to deflect charges that it was coddling, rather than persecuting, the social welfare posers among the nation's nonprofits.

“Why has the IRS not enforced our laws?” asked an incredulous Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., way back in April. Levin has been leading a Senate investigation of nonprofits and their growing political activity.

But this week, Levin was forced to improvise some rhetorical gymnastics, as he tried to reconcile last month’s worry about IRS footdragging with this week’s concern about IRS persecution. "After Friday's announcement that the IRS, to the extent that it has been enforcing the law, may have done so in a way that singled out some groups for special scrutiny, we have determined that the subcommittee should investigate that additional issue," he said in a joint statement with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

The italics are mine, but the political agility is all Levin’s. In one sentence, he managed to accuse the IRS of being both inadequate and overzealous, which is no small feat.

To be clear, I'm not excusing anything the IRS and its employees may have done in targeting conservative groups; indeed, the revelations have gone from bad to worse in recent days. Nor am I attacking Levin, at least not in particular. Rather, my complaint is with all those politicians who traffic in tax-related moral outrage.

If the IRS made news with its admission last Friday, it’s safe to say that plenty of people were not surprised. More than a year ago, The New York Times reported that “the I.R.S. has sent dozens of detailed questionnaires to Tea Party organizations applying for nonprofit tax status, demanding to know their political leanings and activities.”

Conservatives, meanwhile, have been complaining long and loud about this unwanted attention. “This is obviously a coordinated effort by the I.R.S. to stifle these Tea Party and Tea Party-affiliated groups, and to stifle free speech activities,” said one right-leaning lawyer in comments to the Times. “It’s as onerous as what they did to the N.A.A.C.P. in the 1950s, and I plan to make that point.”

All this indignation makes me tired. But it also serves as a useful reminder. Tax enforcement has always swung like a pendulum, and not just around the subject of nonprofits and their political activity. The IRS gets rapped in its collective head every time that pendulum moves from one side to the other. If the agency isn’t doing too much, then it’s not doing enough. And it was ever thus.

In truth, of course, the agency may well be failing in both ways, just like the critical lawmakers say. But if so, that’s partly because those same lawmakers have asked the IRS to walk a poorly defined and excruciatingly narrow line. A line, moreover, that those lawmakers drew.

Read Comments (1)

Von GneisenauMay 15, 2013

"All this indignation makes me tired."

I know. Back in the 50s the NAACP indignation also made me tired. Why can't
all these people just stop complaining and pay up?

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