The kerfuffle over the Internal Revenue Service’s treatment of tea party groups seeking tax exemptions might be more bureaucratic mush than political malice.
A lengthy story Sunday in The New York Times by three reporters describes the implosion that occurred when the Cincinnati IRS office was flooded with 60,000 paper applications seeking to qualify for a niche category of political activity and tax avoidance. The goal was 501(c)4 status that does not require registering as a political action committee or disclosing donors.
All of the anger and frustration with the IRS is understandable, but it is also just as evident the table pounding is an effort to revive moribund tea party groups. They did not have much, they did not offer much. Now they have Righteous Indignation to exploit.
The Cincinnati office was overwhelmed with work, and no one in the IRS hierarchy appears to have noticed or cared. The employees in the administratively obscure department that screened the applications started looking for shortcuts, and a processing shorthand to sort out the applications. The key-word technique also snagged liberal groups looking for special tax treatment in the social welfare category, along with the tea party groups.
The IRS has a duty to staff up to meet these challenges. The work cannot be sloughed off to the agency’s hinterlands, and expect no one will notice. At the same time, Congress has a duty to provide the budgets to pay for the work. Congress cannot play it both ways, looking for kudos for budget cuts, and whining about the mistreatment of citizens by a plodding bureaucracy.
The IRS comes off badly for process and procedures, but the lame, self-serving congressional efforts to turn this into a Nixonian abuse of tax authority suggests nothing else to talk about.