About That Nonprofit IRS Tax Scandal…Never Mind!

October 5, 2017; Washington Post

Yesterday, the Treasury Department’s inspector general for tax matters released the findings of an audit that indicate that the groups seeking tax-exempt status that the IRS selected for extra scrutiny fell in both conservative and liberal camps. Specifically, the report shows that for the decade between 2004 and 2013, the IRS initiated reviews when applicants’ names included such words and phrases as “occupy,” “progressive,” and “green energy.” (Groups whose names included “medical marijuana” were also included, which seems a bit of a reach, actually.) So, can we please put that bone down and fund the IRS to do its job?

The group that issued this report also issued the one that sparked the scandal in 2013. At that time, the office revealed that that the IRS placed 250 conservative-sounding applicants for nonprofit status under review. On that side of the aisle, they tagged groups for review if they had names with terms like “tea party” or “patriot.” This one-sided reporting of the problem fed outrage among conservative activists and media, who felt singled out for interminable delays even as some news outlets were reporting that the problem didn’t appear to target conservative groups alone. In July of 2013, Jonathan Weisman wrote for the New York Times that:

The controversy that erupted in May has focused on an ideological question: Were conservative groups singled out for special treatment based on their politics, or did the IRS equally target liberal groups? But a closer look at the IRS operation suggests that the problem was less about ideology and more about how a process instructing reviewers to “be on the lookout” for selected terms was applied to any group that mentioned certain words in its application.

Organizations approached by The New York Times based on specific “lookout list” warnings, like advocates for people in “occupied territories” and “open source software developers,” told similar stories of long waits, intrusive inquiries and bureaucratic hassles that pointed to no particular bias but rather to a process that became too rigid and too broad. The lists often did point to legitimate issues: partisan political campaign organizations seeking tax-exempt status, or commercial businesses hoping to cloak themselves as nonprofit groups. But even IRS officials say lookout list warnings were often pursued in a ham-handed or overly rigid way.

So, in any case, there did indeed appear to be a singling out of groups considered to have a political agenda, which is questionable behavior, though less pernicious if even-handed. Meanwhile, though, the IRS has been vilified and financially hobbled for what was considered at the time to be out-of-control partisanship rather than some more run-of-the-mill bureaucratic bungling, which arguably would not have been real news to anyone.

Steve Benen writes for MSNBC:

For those of us who’ve followed the story closely, this new reporting isn’t exactly a breakthrough moment. The “scandal” evaporated years ago, and despite assorted partisans desperately trying to keep it alive, every serious examination has come to the same conclusion: the controversy never existed. After several years of scrutiny and multiple investigations, there’s just nothing here.

—Ruth McCambridge