Congress Promotes the Myth that the IRS Targeted Tea Party Groups

The new spending bill fixes a phantom problem.

<a href="http://www.shutterstock.com/pic-158874281/stock-photo-irs-tax-auditor-man-with-a-stern-or-mean-expression.html?src=VuqnuupOwa6fraDgLFHOgA-1-0">Lane V Erickson</a>/Shutterstock

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On Monday night, House Republicans and Senate Democrats released an omnibus spending bill to fund the government for 2014. Although the two sides had reached an agreement in December on overall spending numbers, until now they hadn’t allotted funds for specific government programs.

The bill has few of the policy add-ons that have bogged down past spending bills, but conservatives still managed to slip in a few pet causes. The legislation contains two clauses that bar the government from taking an organization’s ideology into account when considering whether to grant tax-exempt status or when making regulatory decisions. The first provision specifies that “none of the funds made available under this Act may be used by the Internal Revenue Service to target citizens of the United States for exercising any right guaranteed under the First Amendment.” The second stipulates that funds can’t be used “to target groups for regulatory scrutiny based on their ideological beliefs.”

These clauses are a sop to Republicans who claim that the IRS unfairly singled out tea party groups for scrutiny in the run up to the 2012 election. But they aren’t particularly meaningful. The IRS is already barred from discriminating against applicants based on their political or religious beliefs. That doesn’t mean the agency can’t scrutinize a group’s political activities. Nonprofits are forbidden from engaging in certain political activities—coordinating with candidates, for instance—and it’s up to the IRS to determine their eligibility.

That task became tricky in 2012. Following the Citizens United decision, the IRS faced a glut of applications from would-be 501(c)4 “social welfare” organizations, many of them Dark Money groups. A few agents in Ohio made the mistake of using keywords, like “tea party” or “patriot,” to identify groups that might merit extra scrutiny. Republicans argued that the Obama administration was using the federal bureaucracy to target political foes, but those allegations turned out to be unfounded. Sure, the IRS investigated conservative groups applying for nonprofit status. But it did the same with progressive organizations, and it chose which ones to scrutinize using keywords, such as “progressive” or “occupy.” In the end, twice as many conservative groups as liberal ones were approved.

 

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DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily crazy—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America will move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

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