On Monday, President Obama began to respond appropriately to revelations that the Internal Revenue Service targeted conservative groups to establish whether they were complying with their tax-exempt status. The president called the IRS actions “outrageous.” He promised to hold agency officials accountable. His words followed the apology on Friday from Lois Lerner, the head of the agency division that oversees tax-exempt organizations.
Now the White House must follow through on the president’ s commitment. Already, the inspector general of the Treasury Department has launched an investigation. So has the IRS inspector general. Both reports are expected soon. The president must respond fittingly to the results. Republicans weren’t exaggerating in talking about the episode as “despicable” and “absolutely chilling.”
The president often has proclaimed his wish to change the archly partisan tone in Washington. Clearly, Republicans have resisted the idea. This IRS episode is a self-inflicted wound. House Republicans will pursue their own hearings and investigation, and legitimately so, deepening the polarization and suspicion.
The IRS does have an important job in ensuring that organizations deserve their tax-exempt status. The job has become more difficult as the number of groups has expanded rapidly in recent years. The 501(c) 4 exemption allows for those primarily promoting “social welfare” to engage in political activity. The question becomes: How much political activity should the IRS permit?
So it made sense for the agency, facing a sharp increase in applications, to consolidate the task in one office, seeking to build expertise. Yet the effort went off the track. The New York Times obtained a timeline showing that in early 2010, the IRS began searching for groups using such terms as “tea party” and “Patriots.” Then, the search expanded to, among other things, “criticize how the country is being run.”
In July 2011, the timeline shows an effort to remove the conservative bias. Yet the pursuit still appeared aimed at tea partyers, finally coming to a halt early last year as news reports surfaced about complaints and harassment.
Jokes often are made about the president unleashing the IRS on political enemies, Conan O’Brien making one at the recent White House correspondents’ gala. What is funny is that no administration would be so dumb, surely not after the darkness of Richard Nixon. The Obama administration does face a challenge, ensuring that political organizations do not abuse a tax exemption, protecting taxpayers no less. If anything, the White House would have benefited from transparency at the start, making plain what it viewed as necessary, ensuring oversight and accountability.
Now all of that will come, the president playing catch-up as he seeks to limit the damage to his credibility.