Our View: Bashful IRS needs to step up its game

July 2, 2013 

The real scandal involving the Internal Revenue Service is not about the overblown allegations that officials in a field office targeted tea party groups.

The true scandal is that the Internal Revenue Service has been less than aggressive in enforcing reasonable laws against electioneering by tax-exempt, not-for-profit social welfare organizations.

In his quest to tar President Barack Obama, Rep. Darrell Issa, the San Diego County Republican, is using his position as chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee to attack the IRS and, by extension, the president.

At the House's direction, the Treasury Department's inspector general issued a report that claimed the IRS used markers including the words "tea party" and "patriot" in the names of newly created nonprofits to make further inquiry.

The inspector general's report was slanted when the Republican-controlled House specifically directed that the inspector general focus on IRS inquiries targeting conservative-sounding groups. With visions of Watergate dancing in their heads, Republicans then issued subpoenas and called IRS officials to the Hill.

"This was a targeting of the president's political enemies, effectively," Issa told CBS in May.

It was nothing of the sort. The so-called scandal is a creation of Beltway politics.

In recent days, the IRS has acknowledged that it also targeted groups on the left which had words such as "green energy," and "medical marijuana" in their names.

Liberal and conservative operatives establish entities governed by Internal Revenue Service Code section 501(c)(4), and use the law to shield the identities of donors while they wage what to the unpracticed eye is common campaign activity.

What can be known about the organizations generally does not become public until long after votes are cast. Money spent in the 2012 election by many groups won't become public until October, when they file their tax returns, hardly useful for voters who might have wanted to have made informed choices 11 months earlier.

The nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign money, estimated that social welfare groups had spent $350 million on campaigns as of October 2012. The amount will rise in each election cycle, given federal court rulings allowing for unlimited corporate spending.

To make informed choices, the voting public needs to know who is behind campaign spending. With the IRS facing a partisan inquisition, it's highly unlikely that the agency will bring actions against operations that abuse their tax status any time soon.

The IRS is ill-equipped to handle inquiries into campaign activity. Congress, which pays lip service to the need for greater disclosure, should consider shifting the IRS' duties to the Federal Election Commission, which is responsible for monitoring campaign spending.

The FEC long has been mired in partisan discord. But there is a glimmer of hope. President Barack Obama has nominated Ann Ravel, California Fair Political Practices Commission chairwoman, and Virginia attorney Lee E. Goodman, a Republican, to serve on the Federal Election Commission. The Senate should confirm them quickly, and they should make greater disclosure their crusade.

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