Republicans are outraged and calling for congressional hearings (because it isn’t enough that fully one-third of the committees in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives are currently involved in investigations of the Obama White House for one thing or another …) over Cincinnati, Ohio-based Internal Revenue Service workers flagging groups with “tea party” or “patriot” in their names for review between 2010 and 2012. The groups were seeking status as 501(c)4 organizations, designated by the IRS as “social welfare” entities that don’t primarily engage in politics.
Except that the tea party and its various iterations — from the Tea Party Express to the Koch-brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity, engage in lots of politics, most of it aimed squarely at Democrats and the Obama administration.
Likewise, groups like Karl Rove’s American Crossroads and its PAC, Crossroads GPS and the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, along with the Tea Party Express (run by Republican political consultants) and liberal groups like Priorities USA are deemed as social welfare organizations, operating “primarily to further the common good and general welfare of the people of the community (such as by bringing about civic betterment and social improvements)” as described on the IRS website 501(c)4 section. And despite the fact that in reality, they operate as political PACs in charitable clothing, these groups are permitted under the 501(c)4 rules to raise tens of millions of dollars from anonymous donors, including corporations, without disclosing the funders’ names, and are essentially subsidized by taxpayers.
As a result, “non-profit” groups spent $1 billion in the 2012 election cycle, according to the Center for Public Integrity, based on data from the Center for Responsive Politics, with 70 percent of that spending by conservative groups, opposing Barack Obama‘s re-election.
Flood of “Tea Party” groups
The flood of new “Tea Party” groups after the January 2010 Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, which opened the floodgates for corporate and labor union spending in politics, meant that the IRS was seeing a lot of applications for tax-exempt 501(c)4 status. The IRS reports the number of groups seeking the designation jumped from 1,500 in 2010 to 3,400 in 2012.
The news that groups with “Tea Party,” “patriot” or “9/12” (based on right wing talk radio host Glenn Beck’s 9/12 project) in the names were singled out for extra scrutiny on their applications has touched off a media frenzy, as outlets on the right in particular, but across the board, are demanding to know, as Joe Klein said on Hardball on Monday, what the White House might have known about the process, “and when did it know it.”
The fact that Doug Shulman, the IRS commissioner until he stepped down in November 2012, is a Republican, who was appointed to the IRS position by George W. Bush, hasn’t stopped the scandal freight train. Nor has the revelation that Lois Lerner, who headed the IRS’s tax-exempt groups unit, ordered her team to “immediately revise” the criteria for groups being scrutinized in July 2011, to remove the specific references to the tea party. (Or the reporting, from the Atlantic, that Democratic members of congress drove the push to scrutinize 501(c)4 applications, as well as the push-back against the extra scrutiny.)
And never mind that some tea party groups themselves, such as the New Hampshire Tea Party Coalition, have pointed the finger at the slew of Republican consultants creating phony groups with the name “tea party” for bringing some of the scrutiny on themselves:
“While we decry the practice of using the IRS to target anyone, we have not been subject to this scrutiny because we as the original movement do not collect/distribute or deal with money,” Jane Aitken of the NHTPC said in an email blast. “Many of the groups in question are GOP PACs founded by GOP consultants calling themselves ‘tea parties.’”
In a related blog post titled “Legitimate Tea Party Groups Have Nothing to Fear From the IRS,” the NHTPC took direct aim at the Tea Party Patriots, Tea Party Express, TheTeaparty.net and Tea Party Nation, saying that those groups “had little or nothing to do with the formation of the legislative tea party movement in 2007.”
Still, words like “abuse of power” and “Nixonian” are being tossed around — with non-existent connections to the White House being speculated about in journalistic circles. Politico’s headlines blared: Acting IRS chief knew of targeting in 2012 … 5 key players in IRS mess … and Scandal politics sweep Capitol Hill! House Speaker John Boehner is said to be “obsessed.”
It’s all very dramatic.
No such drama in 2004
NAACP members and leaders watching the excitement over the IRS’ alleged targeting of Tea Party groups might be wondering where the outrage was in 2004, when the IRS, then during the George W. Bush administration, not only targeted the NAACP for extra scrutiny, they hit them with the tool that has made Americans fear the revenue agency most: an audit.