IRS scandal a tale of irony, ineptitude


The Internal Revenue Service scandal is catnip for conservatives who claim that President Obama’s leftish leviathan is out to get them. But the reality of what happened is far more nuanced and complicated.

I’m well aware, in this era of ideological warfare, that nuance is the first casualty. But I’ll give it a try anyway, because the IRS’ targeting of small-fry conservative groups was not a conspiratorial socialist plot. It was knuckleheaded, ill-supervised bureaucratic ineptitude.

That in no way diminishes the IRS’ disgraceful behavior, or excuses the inexcusable. Beginning in 2010, the tax agency’s Cincinnati office singled out for extra scrutiny a disproportionate number of non-profit groups with “tea party” and “patriot” in their titles. In remarks yesterday, Obama rightly assailed the scandal as “outrageous,” and said: “You don’t want the IRS ever being perceived to be biased, and anything less than neutral in terms of how they operate. I’ve got no patience for it. I will not tolerate it, and we will make sure we find out exactly what happened on this.”

Conservatives have every right to be ticked off — just as liberals would’ve been infuriated if the Bush-era IRS had singled out non-profit groups with words like “progressive” in their titles. But now let’s go to the nuance.

Just for starters, let’s dispense with the predictable right-wing hyperbole about how the IRS scandal is proof that Obama is “Nixonian.” The people slinging that bull don’t know their history. There isn’t a shred of proof that Obama personally ordered the IRS to target those conservative groups; by contrast, here’s Nixon on the White House tapes — Sept. 8, 1971 — plotting to use the IRS to harass his likeliest 1972

Democratic opponents:

“Are we going after their tax returns? I — you know what I mean? There’s a lot of gold in them thar hills. … I can only hope that we are, frankly, doing a little persecuting. Right? We out to persecute them … Are we looking into Muskie’s returns? Does he have any?. … Hubert’s been in a lot of funny deals. … Who knows about the Kennedy’s? Shouldn’t they be investigated?”

Anyone today who carelessly invokes “Watergate,” or who denounces the current IRS scandal as “a new low in illegal government activity” (to quote an historical spokesman for the Tea Party Patriots), should be required to read the Nixon transcripts. And then take a shower.

The whole thing happened because the conservatives on the U.S. Supreme Court issued their disastrous Citizens United ruling, which inspired hundreds of political groups to take advantage of an IRS loophole; by setting up shop as 501(c)4 non-profits — “social welfare” organizations — they don’t have to disclose their donors.

But social welfare organizations are not supposed to spend most of their time politicking; under the loose IRS rules, such groups shall not be “primarily engaged” in election work. The IRS Cincinnati office, which monitors non-profits, was therefore stuck with the thankless task of weeding out the overtly political groups. Thanks to Citizens United, the number of non-profits quickly doubled. The court ruling was issued in January 2010. The IRS’ enhanced scrutinization began in March 2010. That timing was not coincidental.

So the Cincinnati office started to scrutinize — with great ineptitude. It flagged “tea party” and “patriot” groups because that was a short cut, an easy, lazy way to get a handle on the burgeoning workload.

Only two IRS officials, the commissioner and the chief counsel, are political appointees — and when the conservative groups were flagged in 2010, the commissioner was a George W. Bush appointee. As for Lois Lerner, the lawyer who heads the non-profit division (and who says the IRS flaggings were “insensitive” and “inappropriate”), she served in the IRS for eight years under Bush, and she got her start in the Justice Department under Ronald Reagan.

We all know that nuance can’t compete with shorthand buzz. The shorthand (“Obama goes after conservative groups”) will be wielded by Republicans as a talking point, fundraising tool and grist for inevitable House hearings. As a panicked (fictional) White House guy remarked on the HBO comedy “Veep,” when faced with the latest scandal du jour, “For the next 13 months, we’re gonna play who-knew-what-when.”
Reel life and real life, what’s the difference.

Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia ( and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Philadelphia. Email him at [email protected]