At its heart, the IRS scandal fac- ing the Obama administration is a case of profiling.
The irony, of course, is that many people who are incensed over the IRS profiling of conservative political groups that were seeking tax -exempt status, are perfectly comfortable with other types of profiling. Indeed, profiling when it comes to threats of terrorism, violation of immigration law or drug trafficking are often defended as not only reasonable, but necessary.
But profiling too often is not only a sign of lazy or complacent law enforcement, but it is fraught with the potential for violating the rights of innocent people based on some preconceived notion of what they are likely to do based on their dress, their complexion or, yes, their political leanings.
The Internal Revenue Service is charged with enforcing an increasingly complex and even convoluted tax law. That individual offices or agents make errors is almost inevitable, although that is not to say such errors are excusable or that they should be ignored.
But nothing is as simple as it seems when it first breaks in today’s 24-7 news cycle.
Accusations that the IRS office in Cincinnati had targeted conservative political groups, especially those using the words tea party or patriot in their name brought a fire storm of criticism and accusations — as yet unfounded — that this was a politically motivated conspiracy tied directly to the White House.
U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Niles, D-13th, issued this statement: “The credibility of our government, especially among those who collect our revenues, must be above political considerations. The targeting of Republican non-profit groups by the IRS is simply an outrageous act, and those responsible must be held accountable. This is the kind of behavior that undermines the credibility of the entire system.”
Story changes with time
But in the weeks that have followed those initial disclosures, a more nuanced story has emerged.
In a weekend story in The New York Times, Donald B. Tobin, a former lawyer with the Justice Department’s tax division who is a law professor at Ohio State University, said : “While some of the I.R.S. questions may have been overbroad, you can look at some of these groups and understand why these questions were being asked.”
It is the responsibility of the IRS to question the legitimacy of tax exemptions for groups that claim to be social welfare organizations, but appear to spend a substantial amount of their time and resources on partisan political activities.
When any organization wins tax exempt status, every other taxpayer ends up subsidizing that activity. Conservatives and liberals alike should be offended by the thought that they are subsidizing political activity that runs counter to their philosophy.
The Treasury Department’s inspector general, J. Russell George, found that the IRS office in Cincinnati used inappropriate criteria to flag some tax-exemption requests for review. But that only accentuates what should be the bigger question: Why should any political organization enjoy tax-exempt status?
Part of the problem is that years ago the IRS moved from a policy that permitted no political activity by a tax-exempt organization to a fuzzier standard that allowed a tax-exempt entity to participate in political campaigns and elections, as long as its primary activity is the promotion of social welfare.
A Supreme Court ruling that gave corporate entities the free speech rights of an individual blurred the line between permissible and impermissible political activity even further.
Congress is properly looking at the question of who knew what when regarding the IRS policies. But it should also be looking at why some people have been able to write off their political donations while others are not.