Asymmetrical Information - Megan McArdle

05.10.13

IRS Singled Out Conservative Groups for Extra Scrutiny

Tea Partiers were targeted for review of their tax-exempt status during the 2012 election.

Conservative groups have been complaining for a few years that they're being harassed by the IRS, forced to endure an inordinate amount of scrutiny. I've been ignoring those complaints, because it just seemed so unlikely. Sure, that sort of thing used to go on: Kennedy ordered the IRS to investigate both right- and left-wing groups he didn't like, and Richard Nixon was audited three times between 1961 and 1968. But those were the bad old days.  No modern administration, or modern agency would do that.  

Well, I take it back. The IRS admits that, in fact, it did single out conservative groups for scrutiny:

The Internal Revenue Service is apologizing for inappropriately flagging conservative political groups for additional reviews during the 2012 election to see if they were violating their tax-exempt status.

Lois Lerner, who heads the IRS unit that oversees tax-exempt groups, said organizations that included the words "tea party" or "patriot" in their applications for tax-exempt status were singled out for additional reviews.

Lerner, who heads the relevant IRS unit, says it was “initiated by low-level workers in Cincinnati,” so it's not like this was administration policy. Still, I'd like to see her answer the following questions:

How many groups were targeted?

Did the practice spread outside of the scofflaws in the Cincinnati office?

Has the IRS taken actions to terminate the offending employees?

This kind of administrative abuse is the sort of slow-acting poison that can kill civil society. I'd like to see the IRS demonstrate that this is just an isolated incident—one that they are very determined not to see repeated.