March 8, 2012; Source: Christian Broadcasting Network

Recently, the IRS began probing the 501(c)(4) applications of Tea Party-affiliated organizations to ascertain exactly what qualified them as tax-exempt social welfare organizations, as we recently noted. And many Tea Partiers aren’t happy about it. The Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) quotes an unnamed “Tea Party protester” complaining that “(t)he government is imposing, overreaching; it’s like a power grab and it’s got to stop.”

The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) has stepped to the plate to oppose the “attempt to intimidate and silence the Tea Party.” ACLJ chief counsel Jay Sekulow says that the IRS is demanding information from the Tea Party groups outside of the agency’s authority and mandate. Although a rock-ribbed conservative, Sekulow said that the IRS actions were comparable to its role in the “intimidation campaign…(against) the NAACP in the 1950s and…simply unacceptable.”

Right Side News says that the IRS has been “generally hostile to the Tea Party movement,” but this new set of inquiries was prompted by a letter several Democratic senators, including Al Franken (Minn.) and Charles Schumer (N.Y.), sent to IRS Commissioner Donald Schulman to look into whether 501(c)(4) organizations were “improperly engaged in a substantial or even a predominant amount of campaign activity.” To Tea Partiers, some of the information that the IRS is requesting doesn’t pertain to doing too much campaign activity, such as the names of donors, names of volunteers, and Facebook wall posts.

It isn’t just conservatives supporting the Tea Partiers. Roll Call quotes Marcus Owens, the former chief of the IRS’s tax exemption unit, who calls the breadth of the IRS inquiry “an overreach.” The letters from the senators and others asking the Service to take a hard look at 501(c)(4)s are a tough road for the tax agency. Typically, the IRS has stepped gingerly about political nonprofits, which probably explains why there seems to be so little social welfare emanating from 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations.

Others are cheering the Service. “Taxpayers should be encouraged by complaints from Tea Party chapters applying for nonprofit tax status at being asked by the Internal Revenue Service to prove they are ‘social welfare’ organizations and not the political activists they so obviously are,” says the New York Times in its editorial section. “The I.R.S. must not flinch from its duty to enforce the tax code and root out political operatives who are abusing the law and conning taxpayers and voters.”

We wonder whether it will flinch. The problem of the amount of political activity by 501(c)(4)s has been an obvious one that the IRS has previously avoided. This time around, it should take it seriously, but be aware that the range of social welfare offenders extends far beyond organizations affiliated with the Tea Party movement.—Rick Cohen