Flagging the IRS for an audit of its own

May 15, 2013 

It sounds like a Rush Limbaugh dream: Under the Obama administration, the Internal Revenue Service specifically scrutinized groups with conservative-sounding names applying for tax-free status, a move that suggests an effort to quash the administration’s critics.

This is a red-meat issue for conservatives. They thought their message was being muffled only by political correctness and liberals in the media, but now it seems there was a government effort to muzzle them. Limbaugh might be sputtering too hard with indignation (and delight) to report that right-wing claims of political oppression are being documented as true.

No, they’re not. What has been documented is that lower-level IRS employees in the agency’s Cincinnati office targeted groups with tea party-type names for extra scrutiny when they applied for tax-exempt status under Section 501(c) (4) of the tax code. The IRS was trying to determine whether the groups were promoting the “social welfare” as required by the code or being fronts for overtly political efforts.

The extra attention wasn’t a random act. Since the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United, groups seeking tax-exempt status for what looks like political activism have grown in number. That rise in applications deserved scrutiny.

But while the IRS is responsible for ensuring the integrity of tax-free status, it was irresponsible to focus on groups coming from only one end of the political spectrum. That was a serious error that recalls President Nixon-seeking to use the IRS to punish or silence enemies.

There’s no evidence that was the intent, but that certainly is the appearance. And there are also questions about how forthcoming the IRS has been regarding the duration of the targeting and about what officials in Washington knew about it.

The IRS must be absolutely free of political motives – and the appearance of political motives – in how it functions. President Obama condemned the targeting and promised that those responsible will be held accountable. The Justice Department has opened an investigation. And the first congressional hearing on the matter is set for Friday.

The Internal Revenue Service is about to get a tough audit of its own. In the end, we hope it pays what it owes conservatives and all Americans: a full explanation and a sincere apology.

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