Revelations that Internal Revenue Service agents paid extra attention to tax-exemption applications from right-wing political action groups shouldn’t really shock anybody, especially considering that the extra attention started in March, 2010. Just two months earlier, the Supreme Court of the United States had delivered its decision on Citizens United v. The Federal Election Commission.
The Court’s decision, that campaign spending equated free speech, meant that corporations (and individuals) were free to spend whatever they wanted to on election campaigns. That should have raised red flags at every single government regulatory agency, and it probably did. After all, the decision by far benefitted corporations, which have deep pockets, want to pay fewer and lower taxes, want to have less government oversight, and may even intimidate their own employees for political gain. By outspending individuals in federal, state, and local elections, they could shut out those who couldn’t compete. That was the prevailing wisdom, at least at the time.
We now understand, one would hope, that outspending was often equated not with free speech but with bullying and corruption; that’s what a bad economy will do. But back then, with the prospect of the Koch brothers and other billionaires ready and willing to buy airtime under the guise of hundreds of seemingly separate organizations, what then were IRS agents at the Cincinnati office, where political action committee applications were reviewed, to have done?
Logically, they should have combed through every single application, regardless of how it was named, to divine whom the applicants really were, whether or not they were related or affiliated with other groups, and whether they genuinely intended to spend their money solely on “issue ads” or wanted to set up a tax-exempt slush fund for their personal use (that might also spend money on campaigns, maybe, sometime). What they did instead, for reasons of allocating time and manpower or just out of laziness, was to profile applicants based primarily on how they named their Super-PACs and with which words they described their intentions.
Well, sort of. Apparently there were a lot of applications, and the number subjected to extra special scrutiny only numbered about 300. Of those roughly 300 applications, only 25% that the IRS agents took an extra long look at fit the “Tea Party” profile. This was at a time when 42% of Americans identified themselves as politically “conservative”. It would seem, based on that, that there was nothing to complain about. 42% is bigger than 25%. We must remember, however hard it may be, that the ”Tea Party” brand of right-wing politics is more radical than truly conservative, and is not representative of what most Republicans, let alone conservatives, believed at the time. 25% therefore accounts for a large focus on a small minority, so perhaps the outrage at profiling is somewhat justified.
It is also very, very hypocritical.
Republicans in Congress are surely thrilled to have an issue with more traction than the bulls**t surrounding Benghazi (itself wildly hypocritical), just as they are surely angry at being profiled, or even loosely associated with anyone who has been. Imagine, being presumed guilty of wrongdoing based on a word in your organization’s name. Imagine having your constitutional rights threatened because you vaguely resemble some other organization proven to be a front for a corrupt, dangerous ideology. Imagine someone using political power to corrupt what is supposed to be a level playing field.
Here’s the thing: the IRS agents involved weren’t political appointees. They were just agents, faced with a newly chaotic political-contribution landscape and trying to figure out how best to adapt the system that had existed before it. That is, after all, their job, to help maintain order and to target not only those who have violated the law but to anticipate those who are likely to break the law. That they made a common enforcement mistake, one made all too often in dealing with violent urban crime, illegal immigration, and terrorism prevention, should be understood, if not expected in the early stages of implementation.
And the Republicans standing in front of microphones today surely haven’t complained about any of those cases of profiling. In fact, many of them have endorsed them. To be targeted because of the color of one’s skin, it seems, is more acceptable than to be targeted because of one’s political beliefs. What, then, did they say when left-wing groups such as the American Friends Service Committee - Quakers! - were warrantlessly wire-tapped? How did they leap to the defense of individuals subjected to that based solely on having made a donation or subscribed to a newsletter? That, we must remember, was an attempt to prevent terrorism. Where was the outrage then?
This is not to say they should not be outraged now. They should be. We all should be, if this was in fact a case of political bias. The right-wing is no less deserving of equal protection than the left-wing. Equal protection is everything. But is political bias what this was? We don’t really know yet.
People made these mistakes, people who were trying to do their jobs. While they did profile certain types - which was, and always will be, wrong - without knowing their intention, we risk undermining our own protections.
The Koch brothers did, in fact, fund multiple groups that were meant to seem independent but weren’t. And some political action committees were simply scams drawing millions in donations they would never spend from individuals genuinely scared of government overreach. And why would con artists - if we risk labeling them so - choose to fleece Tea Partiers in 2010? That’s where the money was.
- Daniel Ward