Are Americans Faulting Obama for the IRS Controversy?

The narrative about what happened at the Internal Revenue Service’s tax-exempt division before and during the 2012 presidential election is still incomplete, but that hasn’t stopped people from drawing conclusions. According to a survey conducted by Pew Research between May 16 and May 19, 42 percent of Americans believe that the Obama administration was somehow involved in the IRS targeting ordeal.

The same survey showed that 31 percent of Americans believe that IRS employees were responsible for the decision, while 27 percent responded “don’t know.” Unsurprisingly, the results of the survey show partisanship when broken down by political affiliation.

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Source: Pew Research

What’s particularly interesting to note is that 44 percent of independents surveyed believe that the Obama administration is involved. The independent inspector’s general report showed that “ineffective management,” and not conspiracy, was the cause of the ordeal, but the survey results suggest that many Americans do not trust this story.

ObamaLois Lerner, who heads the tax-exempt division at the IRS, admitted on May 10 that the agency had engaged in “inappropriate” targeting of conservative 501c(4) groups during the 2012 election. According to Lerner, lower-level IRS employees pursued additional review of groups containing keywords like “tea party” or “patriot” that were suspected of violating the conditions necessary to qualify for tax-exempt status.

Her statement came at the heels of an audit by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration that determined that, “early in Calendar Year 2010, the IRS began using inappropriate criteria to identify organizations applying for tax-exempt status to review for indications of significant political campaign intervention.”

“Ineffective management: 1) allowed inappropriate criteria to be developed and stay in place for more than 18 months, 2) resulted in substantial delays in processing certain applications, and 3) allowed unnecessary information requests to be issued,” reported the TIGTA on May 14.

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Acting Commissioner Steven Miller, who was promptly sacked by the administration, summed up the situation in a testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee by saying, “I think that what happened here was that foolish mistakes were made by people trying to be more efficient in their workload selection.”

The workload factor is important, because 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. The IRS was flooded with new applications, and reports indicate that the organization was totally unprepared to deal with the workload.

What’s more, the Citizens United ruling changed the tax code in such a way that tens of thousands of previously approved tax-exempt groups were compelled to re-apply. In addition to the new filings, the IRS was flooded with re-applications. The Supreme Court ruling created an analog version of a denial-of-service attack on the small IRS division responsible for processing the paperwork.

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“We’re talking about an office overwhelmed by 60,000 paper applications trying to find efficient means of dealing with that,” Philip Hackney, who was an IRS lawyer in Washington, told The New York Times. “There were times where they came up with shortcuts that were efficient but didn’t take into consideration the public perception.”

While it’s not necessarily fair to say that the question posed by the Pew survey equates to “was this a case of conspiracy or not?”, that implication does seem to be contained within the responses. The standing body of evidence suggests that the IRS was faced with an enormous workload, was under nebulous (or incompetent) leadership, and was clearly unprepared to deal with not just the volume of paperwork but the nature of the applications received.

Someone had to make a decision to review certain applications based on inappropriate criteria. The standing story put forth by the inspector general suggests that the issue was dealt with within the lower echelons of the IRS before knowledge of the matter bubbled up slowly through the ranks, as backlogs increased and things got worse.

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