Monday, May 20, 2013

Undue diligence at the IRS

If the IRS had been more politically savvy, the agents in charge would have thrown in some "balance" keywords as well — words like "Occupy" or "99 Percent." But those balance keywords wouldn't have mattered, because the Occupy movement wasn't setting up hundreds of new 501(c)(4)s. But we don't have a particularly savvy IRS, and so we're left with this bumbling scandal.

Initially, the bulk of this [political] money [streaming through non-profit entities] came from groups that tilted right. Perhaps it was a coincidence, but the plaintiffs in Citizens United wanted to run a pay-per-view movie critical of Hillary Clinton, then the front-runner for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. Today, left-leaning groups are just about caught up, and the new left- and right-leaning voices in federal elections are approaching parity with each other.

Okay, guys, you may want to get your stories straight with each other. 

Both Karpf and Morrison are agreed in principle, though: There's nothing really wrong with the IRS digging into the motives and personalities behind non-profits; they just goofed by biasing their efforts towards conservative groups. Karpf, as HuffPo's puppet academic, seemingly believes that the sole liberal group warranting such attention is the Occupy movement; there are, in his world, no liberal 501(c)(4) organizations. But if there were, he theoretically grants that they too should have been scrutinized. 

The idea that the scrutiny itself might be objectionable they both wave away as conservative opportunism masking as principle. The point of the Citizens United case is that corporations, associations and unions also have the right to participate in the public forum via the First Amendment. Morrison finds political figures such as Karl Rove attempting to influence elections outrageous, while Karpf objects to wealthy people having a voice in the public square (did I mention he was writing in HuffPo?). Silly me, I tend to think of such things as part of the baggage of democracy and the First Amendment. After all, astroturfing is what put our current Glorious Leader in office. Sauce for the goose.

Fmr. IRS commissioner Steven Miller.
The thing is, I can see the major attractiveness behind their position. Ruth Marcus said it best in WaPo: "A healthy democracy demands a system in which citizens can trust that their government does not punish political dissenters. It also demands that citizens be able to know what interests are bankrolling their elected officials. The two needs are not inherently at odds, but the idiocy of the IRS risks making them so." It comes down to the issue of transparency, which is a derivative of fundamental honesty. In a world where retaliation weren't a concern, the only people in need of privacy shelters would be the dishonest.

However, trying to cast the scandal as a case of pushing due diligence too far, as if the non-profits themselves were to blame, is a red herring. Both Karpf and Morrison are grumping about 501(c)(4) organizations, while the most notorious abuses are of 501(c)(3) applicants; the latter group, which includes religious organizations, has severe limits on lobbying activities and absolutely cannot give vocal support to particular candidates or parties. In many of the cases coming to light, the IRS flunkies were asking questions they had no authority or need to ask, setting conditions they had no legal power to set, and denying applications they had no legal grounds to deny.

John Podhoretz's point in Commentary is well-taken: "The IRS’s enforcement power has to do with misconduct following the granting of tax-exempt status. It should not presume lack of good faith on the part of those applying for the status [my emphasis.—TL]. What it can do to them, fairly and legally, is revoke the status based on the organization’s behavior after the exemption is granted—thus effectively crippling and destroying it. That is its policing power."

If there's anything the scandal's about, it's about the misuse of the government's power to tax in order to limit the voices that get heard; it has little, if anything, to do with revealing the Rich and Sinister Figures Manipulating the Process. Retaliation is very much a concern, and the IRS has been a tool of political reprisal since its charter. The current scandal reveals as well that the IRS, in the wrong hands, is also a perfectly placed tool of soft totalitarianism, discouraging political incorrectness and permitting only the Preferred Narrative through bureaucratic harassment.

Karpf may very well thank God the IRS isn't more politically savvy. In their quest to uncover Rich and Sinister Figures Manipulating the Process, Arianna Huffington's name might have turned up. Why does he think "rich + politically influential = conservative"?