Katy Burns: The IRS, then and now
Among the manifold sins of Richard Nixon 40 years ago was a blatant attempt to use the IRS, then more directly under presidential control, to punish the 37th president’s many enemies and to reward a few of his friends.
For instance, not only did he demand access to the files of his political opponents – “How come we haven’t pulled [George] McGovern’s file on his income tax?” he asked about his Democratic election opponent – as he discussed combing his foes’ files for ammunition.
He also actively pushed for IRS audits of those he didn’t like and actually stopped a few scheduled for people he liked, such as – honest! – actor John Wayne.
And he personally threatened to fire Treasury Secretary George Shultz should Shultz try to block Nixon’s access to the highly confidential files.
Since that time there have been numerous controls established to shield the IRS from such political interference, and any president with even a smattering of historical knowledge knows that any attempt to meddle with the IRS would be political suicide.
Fast forward to today’s contretemps, which by the way occurred under the ultimate direction of an IRS commissioner appointed by President George W. Bush. What the IRS – or rather a few relatively low-level employees – is accused of is using improper criteria to screen certain political organizations applying for status as tax exempt “social welfare” organizations under IRC section 501(c)(4). As such, not only would they be exempt from paying taxes but they could keep their lists of donors confidential.
Normal political organizations do have to disclose their donors.
These organizations are asking for a privilege. The IRS is required by law to see if they are eligible.
To the extent that IRS inquiries were unduly burdensome or protracted there should be consequences for those who conceived and imposed the criteria.
But the real scandal is that so many clearly hyper-partisan political organizations – including massive entities like Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS (on the right) and Bill Burton’s Priorities USA (on the left) were permitted to parade as “social welfare” organizations and get off tax free with their secret donors even as they spent many, many millions advertising in last year’s presidential and congressional campaigns.
And the real scandal is also that the Treasury Department and the Congress – which after all is ultimately responsible for the existence of such organizations – are too cowed or too tied to their donors in the case of the Congress – to draft appropriate and understandable rules that IRS employees can follow to comply with the law.
(Monitor columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)