By MARSHA MERCER
We’ll eventually find out what the IRS employees in Cincinnati thought they were doing when they subjected tea party groups to special scrutiny. We already know that they did accomplish one thing, unintentionally. They breathed new life into the tea party movement.
That irony will haunt Democrats and President Barack Obama in the 2014 elections. It’s an old, but good, lesson for anyone involved in government: Avoid even the appearance of a partisan fishing expedition, especially if you’re in the federal agency most Americans fear and hate most.
As of now, it seems that a few overworked, misguided IRS employees in Cincinnati, whose job it was to make sure groups applying for tax-exempt status met certain legal criteria, used a shorthand guide to check groups. This was a Be On the Look Out, or BOLO, system to give special scrutiny to groups that had tea party, patriot or 9/12 in their names.
Wrong, wrong, wrong. The IRS needs to be scrupulously nonpartisan. Still, imagine that fewer than 200 overworked employees faced more than 70,000 requests for non-profit status a year. They might want to find a quick way to assess who was eligible.
Still, going after conservatives wasn’t the solution. Even worse, the IRS’ boss said to stop using the criteria but the employees apparently didn’t stop, according to the Treasury Department Inspector General report. Groups that may have been totally legitimate were subjected to ridiculous reporting requirements. At least one was asked which books its leaders were reading.
Watchdog groups have long warned that some groups, conservative and liberal, were abusing the tax-exempt privilege. Congress needs to clarify just how much political activity is allowed.
After last November’s elections, many analysts wrote off the tea party movement. Several tea party-endorsed Senate candidates washed out, and Michele Bachmann, the tea party darling and victor in the Iowa Republican presidential caucuses, barely won re-election to her House seat in Minnesota.
Bachmann, chairwoman of the House Tea Party Caucus, was back in front of a microphone. She set up a news conference outside the Capitol Thursday that turned into a tea party rally. She even espoused the crackpot notion that health care could be denied under the president’s new health care program because of people’s beliefs.
“Could there potentially be political implications regarding health care — access to health care, denial of health care — will that happen based upon a person’s political beliefs or their religiously-held beliefs?” Bachmann asked.
She conceded that these questions would have been considered “out of bounds a week ago,” but with the IRS enforcing the penalty for those who refuse to purchase insurance in 2014, she said, it’s “more than reasonable and more than fair” for Americans to ask.
Well, no, it’s neither reasonable nor fair. It’s far-fetched, to put it politely. But this is what happens when an administration runs off the rails.
Don’t get me wrong. The IRS must be above reproach. People must trust that government actions are nonpartisan. Employees reviewing applications for tax-exempt status should never single out groups with partisan-sounding names for intense review, delaying processing. It was “inappropriate,” the Treasury Department Inspector General said. And it was tone deaf. The office that conducted the reviews “did not consider the public perception of using politically sensitive criteria when identifying these cases,” the inspector general said in his report.
The IRS did not deny even one request for tax-exempt status from these groups. Still, the IRS story was one of three that together were damning for President Barack Obama, who promised transparency and honesty.
Besides the IRS targeting, the State Department and other agencies offered confusing explanations about what happened in the attack last year on the mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four American diplomats.
Plus, the Justice Department secretly seized two months of telephone records of reporters and editors of the Associated Press.
At his news conference Thursday, Obama said he "did not know anything" about an IRS inspector general's report on political targeting prior to media reports. The reporter had asked, though, whether anyone at the White House knew about the targeting. We will know more later.
Michele Bachmann will make sure about that.
© Marsha Mercer 2013. All rights reserved.