At various points over the past two years, Internal Revenue Service officials singled out for scrutiny not only groups with “tea party” or “patriot” in their names but also nonprofit groups that criticized the government and sought to educate Americans about the U.S. Constitution, according to documents in an audit conducted by the agency’s inspector general.Other flags included mentions of Federal debt and "9/12," which as you may recall was a Glenn Beck™ thing. Predictably, Republicans seizing on this as a political issue, but condemnation of political targeting goes across the political spectrum. Even the IRS itself acknowledges, there's no defending what took place.
The documents, obtained by The Washington Post from a congressional aide with knowledge of the findings, show that the IRS field office in charge of evaluating applications for tax-exempt status decided to focus on groups making statements that “criticize how the country is being run” and those that were involved in educating Americans “on the Constitution and Bill of Rights.”
In the coming days and weeks, there will no doubt be a huge effort to Benghazify what took place, but it's important to remember that this shouldn't be a partisan issue—the IRS Commissioner at the time of the activity was a Bush appointee and liberals have been targets of this kind of scrutiny as well. Democrats and Republicans should be equally eager to seriously look at the issues that this episode raises.
One of those issues appears to that in the effort to streamline the IRS in the name of "efficiency" crucial checks and balances were removed.
Marcus Owens, who oversaw tax-exempt groups at the IRS between 1990 and 1999, said that delegation “carries with it a risk” because the Cincinnati office “isn’t as plugged into what’s [politically] sensitive as Washington.”One GOP congressman has already proposed legislation that would expand criminal penalties against people guilty of this sort of political targeting, but if the problem here is a broken enforcement process, solutions like that are more about political grandstanding than fixing what's wrong. Of course, if the Benghazi hearings are any indication, grandstanding is exactly what we'll get—at least from the right.
Owens, now with the firm Caplin & Drysdale, said that before the agency’s most recent reorganization, it had a series of “tripwires in place” that could catch unfair targeting, including the fact that the IRS identified its criteria for special scrutiny in a public manual.
“There’s no longer that safety valve, and as a result, the IRS has been rolling the dice ever since,” said Owens, who worked at the agency for nearly a quarter-century and now represents some organizations seeking tax-exempt status.