Remember the scandal that erupted in 2013 when the IRS was found to be targeting conservative organizations for harassment? President Barack Obama called such conduct “outrageous.” “There’s no place for it,” he added, and assured the public that “[the IRS] have to be held fully accountable.”
And then nothing happened.
Obama took no action, and his handpicked IRS commissioner, John Koskinen, simply stonewalled congressional investigations. Lois Lerner, the head of the IRS unit at the heart of the scandal, retired with a full pension, and no disciplinary action was taken against any IRS employee.
Finally, last October, the IRS signed a consent decree in federal court in which it admitted to targeting conservative organizations for more than two years, from 2010 through 2013. It confessed that:
its treatment of [conservative organizations] during the tax-exempt determinations process, including screening their applications based on their names or policy positions, subjecting those applications to heightened scrutiny and inordinate delays, and demanding of some Plaintiffs’ information that TIGTA [U.S. Treasury Inspector General, Tax Administration] determined was unnecessary to the agency’s determination of their tax-exempt status, was wrong.
This IRS targeting of conservative organizations in the run-up to the 2012 election should be one of the major scandals of our time. Researchers from Stockholm University, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and the American Enterprise Institute concluded that a fully mobilized Tea Party, unhindered by IRS harassment, would have brought the Republican Party between 5 and 8.5 million votes. You may recall Obama won the popular vote by just under 5 million votes.
Of course, we can’t know for certain, and in any event nothing can be done about that now. But the IRS scandal should be a constant reminder of the danger of giving government the power to regulate political advocacy, through the tax code or otherwise.
Instead, what we are now seeing is an outright attempt to rewrite history so as to whitewash the entire affair. Newsweek has gone so far as to call the scandal “fake news,” with one of its columnists calling it “a lie.” A Dec. 29 editorial by the Washington Post claims that there was “mismanagement … but not deliberate targeting.”
But that’s true only if you describe deliberate targeting as “mismanagement.” As the original report by TIGTA made clear, the IRS “developed and used inappropriate criteria to identify applications from organizations with the words Tea Party in their names … Subsequently the [IRS] expanded the criteria to inappropriately include organizations with other specific names (Patriots and 9/12) or policy positions.”
The IRS itself eventually conceded that of 199 cases analyzed under this “Be On the Look Out,” or “BOLO” program, approximately 75 percent  “appear to be conservative leaning, while fewer than 10 appear to be liberal/progressive leaning groups.” In other words, the fact that the terms the IRS used to pull applications for extra scrutiny — terms such as “Tea Party” and “patriot” — snagged a few liberal groups doesn’t mean that the purpose and effect was not to target conservative organizations.
As the basis for whitewashing the IRS scandal, Newsweek, the Washington Post, and others have turned to a new TIGTA report concerning a different IRS program altogether. That program, called “Touch and Go,” swept up a mix of conservative and progressive groups. But that is precisely because it didn’t target groups based on politics, which was the problem with BOLO. Nothing in the latest TIGTA report contradicts TIGTA’s 2013 report revealing the IRS targeting, and TIGTA doesn’t claim that it does.
As we have documented elsewhere, in targeting conservative organizations in the run-up to the 2012 election, the IRS appeared to be acting at the suggestion, though not the direct request, of President Obama and leading Democratic lawmakers. This was not a case of mere “mismanagement,” but a bureaucracy responding to the political demands of the party then in power.
Congress should make sure that this never happens again, and act to get the IRS out of the business of regulating politics.
Bradley A. Smith is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is chairman and founder of the Institute for Free Speech and served on the Federal Election Commission from 2000 to 2005.
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