If you are confused about the almost-daily revision of the president's position on granting tax exemptions to educational institutions that discriminate on the basis of race, put yourself in the position of the lawyers down at the Internal Revenue Service's Exempt Organizations Division, who have to put the president's decision -- whatever it is--into effect.
Last week they began the necessary steps needed to do what the president called for initially: revoke the 11-year-old rulings that denied tax exemptions to about 100 private schools that the IRS found to practice racial discrimination. With yesterday's newest White House announcement (that only the rulings relating to two specific schools will be reversed), the lawyers will have to change course again.
If the latest White House decision stands, it can be implemented fairly quickly. The anti-discrimination policy is set forth, not in regulations, but in "revenue rulings," in which IRS denied exemptions to specific racially discriminatory schools, and "revenue procedures," in which the IRS directed that tax-exempt schools had to assert publicly that they would not discriminate. There's a long, public process for changing regulations, but it doesn't apply to rulings or procedures. So once IRS decides--or is ordered--to change standing policy, it need only issue a single piece of paper and the job is done.
Still, IRS lawyers worry that job could be extremely complicated. If two discriminatory schools get tax exemptions, what will the service say to the other 100 or so private schools that have had their exempt status revoked on discrimination grounds? Should IRS revoke its procedures before Congress acts on the issue? If it does, will the schools that previously were denied exemptions get retroactive tax breaks?
"Every time you think of a question, there's a new question," says an IRS spokesman.