A civic or social welfare organization is not allowed to support political candidates of any stripe. Partisan activities are a no-no if a non-profit wants to preserve its federal tax exemption. But the law has to be applied evenly.
The Internal Revenue Service has apparently targeted the Tea Party and other right-wing groups to make sure that they weren’t violating their non-profit status by supporting and opposing political candidates. According to the Wall St. Journal, the excess targeting took place during the 2012 election when the IRS noticed that applications for 501(c) (4) status more than doubled. The agency based its greater scrutiny on whether the group had “tea party” or “patriots” in its name. The IRS even asked at least one group to disclose its donors, which isn’t supposed to happen.
The IRS has apologized, but it’s important to know whether this happened due to over-zealous lower level employees in Cincinnati (as claimed) or at a higher, policy level. Liberals should be as concerned as conservatives about the IRS handling of the inquiries. Can you say Richard Nixon? As Reuters reported, secretly recorded White House tapes revealed that the paranoid and anti-Semitic president had ordered Richard Haldemann to direct IRS audits of wealthy Jewish donors giving to the Democratic Party. Nixon also had the IRS lean on people and organizations on his “enemies list,” including the Fund for Investigative Journalism (which funded Sy Hersh’s reporting on the My Lai massacre) and the Center for Corporate Responsibility.
While there are also stories of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson trying to use the IRS politically,( according to Joe Klein writing in Time, even Franklin Roosevelt did it), no one ever did it like Richard Nixon, who reportedly created a special unit within the IRS for just that purpose. It was closed by the late IRS Commissioner Donald Alexander in 1977.
Using the force of government, especially the much feared and loathed IRS, as a way of punishing one’s political opponents strikes at the heart of our democracy. We need to find out how and why this happened and make sure it doesn’t happen again.
I welcome your comments in the section below.