A few questions on the IRS scandal.
1) The core issue here is that the IRS was using the term “tea party” and its associated language as a flag for organizations that might be more political than the 501(c)4 designation permitted. As Juliet Eilperin writes, this kind of category-based approach to choosing which applications require more scrutiny is typical for the IRS. It’s even used in individual tax returns. The question was whether, when it came to the 501(c)4 groups, the only kind of political activity being rigorously screened was conservative political activity. Was tea party language the only red flag? Or did other kinds of politicized language set off alarm bells, too? If so, what was that language?
2) Was the Cincinnati office the only one that used the tea-party test or was it more widely applied? The fact that some tea party groups received scrutiny from Washington-based IRS employees doesn’t answer that question. We should expect tea party groups to get scrutiny when they apply for non-political 501(c)4 designation. The question is whether their applications were flagged through a politically discriminatory test that existed in other agencies, too.
3) Did the IRS higher-ups act appropriately? Right now, much of the reporting indicates that IRS higher-ups shut this down pretty much as soon as they heard about it. Their sin, if there was one, was that they didn’t disclose that anything had gone awry when asked whether the IRS was targeting conservative groups. But they may also have thought that this wasn’t targeting conservative groups — it was simply a reasonable, but ultimately unwise, way of filtering politicized applications for appropriate scrutiny. The IG report should tell us more on this score.
4) In which direction does our outrage point? Do we think the tea party groups really are primarily non-political social welfare organizations and they should’ve received 501(c)4 designation more smoothly? Or do we think that they’re clearly political organizations and their applications should’ve been closely scrutinized and maybe even rejected – but so too should the applications from a host of other politicized groups on the left and the right?
5) Do we want a personnel outcome, a political outcome, or a policy outcome? Is the right endgame simply that some IRS employees get fired? That the Obama administration gets embarrassed? Or is that Congress tightens the language governing who does and doesn’t qualify for 501(c)4 status so that the IRS doesn’t have so much discretion — and career employees don’t resort to these confused tactics — when reviewing applications? Note that if we go the legislative route, we could either widen the 501(c)4 designation, making it clear that political groups qualify, or we could narrow it, making it clear that they don’t.
The answers to these questions would go a long way in clarifying whether we have a real scandal or simply a bad filtering process on our hands, and what we should do about it.