Is it possible it wasn't a vast left-wing conspiracy after all?
That has been the contention of the Obama administration, which has been suitably distressed at the disclosure that Internal Revenue Service employees in Cincinnati were targeting groups with the phrase "tea party" in their names for special scrutiny in considering applications for tax-exempt status, while also insisting the White House was not behind it. So far, there is no evidence to indicate the White House was involved in the decision to screen those groups, although it appears that workers in Washington, D.C. knew.
But the crux of the conservatives' (understandable) ire was that somehow, their compatriots were being unfairly punished. That claim now appears not to be true.
Principal Deputy Commissioner Danny Werfel on Monday revealed that the IRS had used other "inappropriate" lists – and, according to documents released by (surprise!) congressional Democrats, the buzzwords included "progressive," "Occupy" and "Israel." Part of the committee to defeat or impeach President Obama? Not so much, these sorts of groups.
It's tempting to use the new disclosures to indict the government as a whole and the hated IRS in particular. Most of us do not enjoy paying taxes (least of all those self-employed people who have to write checks four times a year, since no ones automatically taking taxes out of their paychecks). And it plays into our group sense of victimization to believe that the evil tax-takers are deliberately going after us (even as we drive on a highway system built by the federal government, take a book out of a library or cash a Social Security check). But it's becoming clear that the IRS was looking at a slew of groups that had some political buzzword in their names. And it should.
This was not the IRS singling people out for audits or prosecution. This was a case of the agency tasked with determining tax status and compliance actually forcing groups to prove they are worthy of tax-free status as a "social welfare" group. Political groups such as the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee and candidate committees are not spared from the taxman. Why should groups on the left, the right or what for some bizarre reason these days qualifies as the middle be spared either?
There's nothing wrong with getting involved in politics or lobbying; that's part of our democracy and part of free speech. But lets not call it "social welfare." They're not feeding the hungry or teaching orphans to read. They're making a political point, and generally with the goal of electing or defeating a candidate. Tea party groups (which, as it has been pointed out, might have figured they'd attract some IRS attention after naming themselves after a movement of people who didn't want to pay any taxes at all) are clearly motivated toward a political end. So are the "occupy" people, and the so-called "progressive" groups which were trying to get Obama re-elected or get Guantanamo closed. Why should they be given tax-exempt status?
This isn't rhetorical either – it's real money. Every time someone gets a tax break, be it a corporation or an investor or a charity, it costs the rest of us money. Cash that doesn't come into the federal coffers from such groups ends up being made up by the rest of us. The tea party groups – and now, we are told, the progressive groups as well – may feel unfairly singled out. But they were asking for something – they were petitioning for special status under the law to avoid paying taxes. The organizations – all of them – should be strictly scrutinized.