At best, it’s a blemish on the Internal Revenue Service and a thorn in the side of the Obama administration. At worst, as Former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich suggests, it’s a specter that will haunt key components of Obama’s legacy, such as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
Last week, Lois Lerner, who leads IRS oversight of tax-exempt groups, issued an apology admitting that it had unfairly targeted conservative political groups during the 2012 election. According to Lerner, lower-level IRS employees pursued additional review of of groups containing keywords like “tea party” or “patriot” that were suspected of violating their tax-exempt status.
Between 2010 and 2012, in the wake of the 2010 Citizens United V. Federal Election Commission Supreme Court Decision, the number of applications for 501c(4) organizations increased 183 percent, which undoubtedly raised a few eyebrows at the IRS. In this case, it looks like the IRS was challenging whether or not these groups were actually “primarily engaged in the promotion of social welfare,” as the verbiage of the Internal Revenue Code dictates they must be in order to quality for tax-exempt status.
While increasing scrutiny of new applications after Citizens United seems reasonable — the potential for gamesmanship and abuse of these organizations was widely publicized during the last election — Lerner admits that IRS employees were pursuing the process with a bias.
“If, in fact, IRS personnel engaged in the kind of practices that have been reported on and were intentionally targeting conservative groups, then that is outrageous, and there is no place for it, and they have to be held fully accountable,” said President Obama in a statement on Monday.
Unsurprisingly the issue has deepened the rift between America’s two political parties, and the GOP has been quick to call for justice. Meanwhile, White House Press Secretary Jim Carney has made it clear that officials are waiting to act until a review can be conducted by the nonpartisan inspector general.
Taking a decidedly wait-and-see approach on Tuesday, Carney said that “one person’s view of what actions were taken or what that individual did is not enough for us to say something concretely happened that was inappropriate,” and that “we need the independent inspector general’s report to be released before we can make judgments.”
Assuming that there is no blatant political prejudice at play, there are a few reasons why the additional reviews were biased against conservative groups. Media coverage ahead of and during the 2012 election was packed with allegations that conservative groups were abusing the Citizens United ruling in order to fund anonymous donation money toward political and non-socially-constructive goals. As a result of this coverage, activists called on the IRS to increase its scrutiny of such groups.