Having waited patiently for the preponderance of evidence to accumulate before burying the Benghazi and AP/Rosen “scandals” without a whimper, it’s now time to do the same relative to the IRS debacle. This was the scandal that, according to Republican allegations, involved the Obama administration-directed harassment by the federal tax-collectors of conservative groups seeking 501c-4 status. As it turns out, that’s actually the easiest part of this imbroglio to dispense with first.
Congressional Republicans’ claims to the contrary, there isn’t a shred of evidence that the White House was complicit in the targeting of conservative groups for extra vetting. Even more explicitly, reports from the IRS Inspector General, the previous Head of the agency (a Bush appointee by the way), and its current Acting Head, have all supported the same conclusion and done so without equivocation. Still, we need to understand what did happen. To that end, it’s necessary to review some history.
Decades ago, Congress decided to provide tax-exempt status to organizations engaged in social welfare activities. Accordingly, in 1954, the IRS tax code was amended to make this accommodation, with such groups designed as qualifying for 501c-4 (tax-exempt) status. Of vital importance to the present is the wording in the modified code; i.e. 501c-4 entities must be involved in the “exclusive” undertaking of social welfare endeavors.
The UNambiguous nature of the aforementioned code wording got muddied considerably in 1959. Then, the IRS modified its position vis a vis 501c-4 organizations so that “exclusively” now meant “primarily”. In other words, if the mission of an organization was “primarily” aimed at social welfare that was sufficient for the awarding of tax-exempt status. Notice that the word “primarily” was never defined. Did it mean that you were above-board if, hypothetically, you spent $51 on social welfare and $49 on something else; or 100 hours on social welfare and 99 other activities? This lack of definitional clarity was to play a major role in the current placing of the IRS under fire.
Now, fast-forward to 2009 and the contentious battle in Congress over the passage of Obamacare. More than any other piece of legislation, that was the one that gave rise to the Tea Party movement and its constituents taking to the streets, advertising themselves as grassroots political activists!! That is what they have been about ever since. How then, in 2010 and beyond, do these groups legitimately apply for tax-exempt, 501c-4 status as organizations devoted “primarily” (there’s that word) to social welfare?
The very history of the Tea Party movement should properly have raised all sorts of red flags at the IRS when it started to receive numerous applications for such special status. And, conservatives weren’t the only ones deserving of extra attention. Groups with words in their titles like “Progressive” should also have been targeted for scrutiny. As a matter of fact, that is precisely what happened.
The record now shows the following: (1) Both conservative and progressive groups were targeted; (2) more of the former than the latter got special attention because there were about four times more of them to begin with; (3) not a single conservative group was denied tax-exempt status but some progressive groups were; and (4) some members of both groups had their applications treated expeditiously while others experienced delays of differing lengths.
Taking all the foregoing into account, this alleged scandal, vigorously promoted as such by conservatives in and out of the media, has now turned from “sizzle” to an ever-loudening fizzle. Undoubtedly, there are some stray facts yet to emerge, and the taking of the 5th by IRS official Lois Lerner still begs the question “What is she holding back?” Whatever the future brings, the evidence now in, points towards no worse than some heavy-handed management of 501c-4 applications by IRS agents who acted, not out of political bias, but due to the aforementioned lack of clarity in their agency’s tax code; i.e. that undefined word “primarily” yet again.