THE BLOG

'IRS-gate' as Conservative Political Correctness

05/15/2013 07:09 pm ET | Updated Jul 15, 2013
  • David Karpf Assistant professor of media and public affairs, George Washington University
AP

The IRS "scandal" continues to unfold in Washington. The whole thing is, frankly, pretty stupid. The IRS was not wrong to target Tea Party groups' 501(c)(4) applications. It just should've procedurally flagged the applications a bit differently. There's something disingenuous about conservative outrage over procedural fairness. Fundamentally, the howls of conservative outrage are nothing more than demands for more "politically correctness" from government.

Here's what we knew in 2011 and 2012: Citizen's United had opened the floodgates for unlimited outside spending in elections. Groups associated with the Koch Brothers, Americans for Prosperity, Glen Beck, and Karl Rove were registering new organizations under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code at an overwhelming rate, creating shell companies that could be used to launch blistering campaign ads behind the cloak of anonymity.

Section 501(c)(4) is meant for non-profit groups that engage in some political activity. Groups like the Sierra Club were moved from 501(c)(3) (traditional tax-deductible charities) to section 501(c)(4) (not-for-profit, but not tax-deductible) in the 1960s because they were pressuring the government not to put a dam in the Grand Canyon. For decades, traditional nonprofit advocacy groups have had to think carefully about c(3) and c(4) status. 501(c)(3)s can raise a lot more money, since it's tax-deductible. But 501(c)(4)s can be more effective with the money they raise, since it can be used to hold government accountable.

Donors to either type of nonprofit can remain anonymous. And therein lay the problem. New political groups have started to abuse 501(c)(4) status in order to provide cover for huge, wealthy donors.

Leading up to the 2012 election, we actually knew all this pretty damn well. Stephen Colbert won a Peabody Award for his ongoing coverage of the topic. If you followed the antics of Stephen, Jon Stewart, Trevor Potter and "Ham Rove," you knew that big donors had found a nice loophole to shelter their political activity.

Those 501(c)(4) applications create a moral problem for our democracy -- if we don't know who's funding the attack ads, then we don't know what influence is being bought and sold along the way. They also create a practical problem for the IRS agents charged with processing the forms. When you know that there's an avalanche of new applications, many of them deserving close scrutiny, how do you weed out the problem applications from the normal ones?

The IRS agents chose to focus on keyword phrases that were regularly appearing in applications from groups that were obviously set up to influence the election. Applications from the Tea Party were flagged for additional scrutiny, because the Tea Party had self-identified as a major vehicle for influence elections. Applications that used boilerplate Tea Party language were flagged as well. These applications were not denied. These groups were not audited. But the leaders of these nascent nonprofits had to answer additional questions. And that was a headache for them. Kind of like being flagged for additional security at the airport because of how you look or how you dress.

If the IRS had been more politically savvy, the agents in charge would have thrown in some "balance" keywords as well -- words like "Occupy" or "99 Percent." But those balance keywords wouldn't have mattered, because the Occupy movement wasn't setting up hundreds of new 501(c)(4)s. But we don't have a particularly savvy IRS, and so we're left with this bumbling scandal.

The irony here is that the same conservative movement that so often seems stuck in the 1990s (Wayne LaPierre blamed gun violence on Mortal Kombat and Natural Born Killers in his post-Newtown press conference) has now emerged on the other side of a 1990s vintage cultural debate. Michelle Malkin -- a women who earned fame by defending Japanese internment camps -- now demands nothing more than "equal scrutiny to liberal and conservative groups." Her complaint isn't that the IRS should be unable to ask hard questions, but solely that it should ask everyone the same hard questions, regardless of ideology or demonstrated intent.

This is about more than hypocrisy. Charges of hypocrisy in politics are about as common as pennies, and about as useful too. This is about craven opportunism.

This is about conservatives finding a soft scandal to drive news coverage and yet another round of fundraising. They can tell their base, "Look, the government is out to get us after all! We knew it! Send more money." They can tell reporters that this is the reason why they are obstructing even the most basic functions of government. They can keep tougher issues, like the sequester and gun background checks, off of the front page. It's a crafty political strategy. It's also a vacuous one.

The IRS agents in charge of this process should be fired. That's what happens when unsavvy bureaucrats create an unintentional mess -- someone gets fired.

But let's all agree to move on to more important issues by the end of the week. The government didn't silence new Tea Party groups. It didn't inflict cruel and unusual punishment upon them. Political groups on the right tried to abuse some loopholes in the nonprofit tax code, and IRS agents came up with a managerial plan for sorting through those potential abuses.

Conservative cries of "Watergate" are an opportunistic distraction. They didn't care about procedural fairness last month, and they won't care about procedural fairness next month.

#IRSgate is the convenient-scandal-of-the-week, and we're all falling for it.