The IRS must weed out the social-welfare and educational organizations that qualify as fully tax exempt — designated in the federal tax code as 501(c)(4) groups— from ones that are primarily political and generally not tax-exempt.
The difference is that the tax-exempt groups cannot advocate on behalf of individual candidates or parties, even though many groups come close to crossing the line.
The workload became even more intensive for the IRS as the number of groups registering for tax-exempt status roughly doubled in the aftermath of a series of campaign finance rulings ahead of the 2012 elections.
Those decisions further obscured the already fuzzy line between political organizations and social welfare organizations and effectively spelled the end to many Watergate-era and later laws restricting political contributions. The rulings also coincided with a rise in political activism — most of it occurring on the right.
The Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision in particular helped move the debate over distinguishing between political and social welfare groups "into the realm of regulation and bureaucrats protecting themselves and tax lawyers paid to find loopholes," said presidential historian Stephen Hess.
The dispute, along with the controversy over government seizure of AP phone logs and Benghazi, may not torpedo Obama's presidency "but reflects the political level of skill of this administration, which has not been as high as many of us thought it would be based on his skill in winning the election," said Hess.
"There's a difference between campaigning and governance," he added.
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