May 27, 2013

The more information that comes out about the scandal at the Internal Revenue Service, the harder it is to say employees there erred completely in putting more scrutiny on particular groups seeking tax-exempt status. According to the New York Times, for example, several of the tea party groups targeted by the IRS were engaged in overt political activity. One group — the Wetumpka Tea Party in Alabama — sponsored get-out-the-vote training “dedicated to ‘the defeat of President Barack Obama.’” Another, an organization meant to engage veterans in government, had given donations to a Republican candidate for the House of Representatives.

As the Times notes, this is exactly the kind of activity that the IRS is supposed to question when it’s deciding on tax-exempt status for “social welfare” organizations:

[A] close examination of these groups and others reveals an array of election activities that tax experts and former I.R.S. officials said would provide a legitimate basis for flagging them for closer review.

“Money is not the only thing that matters,” said Donald B. Tobin, a former lawyer with the Justice Department’s tax division who is a law professor at Ohio State University. “While some of the I.R.S. questions may have been overbroad, you can look at some of these groups and understand why these questions were being asked.”

None of this is to say an investigation of the IRS’s process is unnecessary. There are documented instances when the agency stepped beyond the lines of acceptability. What this shows, however, is that there’s still no substance behind the idea that it was engaged in political or ideological targeting.

Still, everyone agrees that it’s important to get to the bottom of what happened at the IRS — it’s why congressional Democrats have also asked the agency to provide documents and other information relating to its activities. The danger for Republicans is that this spills over to become another attack on the administration.

Congressional Republicans, for example, are still trying to find some kind of link to the White House. As The Hill reports, House oversight committee chairman Darrell “Issa said last week he’s not ready to clear officials like Neal Wolin, the deputy Treasury secretary, after pressing both Wolin and [Treasury inspector general Russell] George about the possibility that Treasury officials knew details about Tea Party groups being targeted in June 2012.”

How this proceeds depends on how Republicans want to approach it. They can treat these inquiries as genuine attempts to find what happened, or they can go the route of their conservative base and insist on linking this scandal to the president. To his credit, Issa is staying away from the former, in an attempt to avoid scandal overreach. But to the party’s detriment, you can’t quite say the same of his some of his colleagues in Congress.

Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer at The American Prospect, where he writes a blog.