It’s inexcusable, and Americans are right to be angry about it, and I am angry about it.
Were the IRS agents politically motivated in flagging conservative groups for heightened scrutiny? John Cassidy offers a contrary theory in The New Yorker—that they were busy bureaucrats who thought they’d found a clever filing shortcut:
It’s possible, I suppose, that the Cincinnati office was inhabited by a group of I.R.S. employees who detested the Tea Party and its hangers-on because of their anti-government stance, and who set out to hinder their activities. It’s also perfectly possible that what we had here was a group of overworked investigators who were swamped with a rising number of applications for tax-exempt status, and who were looking for short cuts to identify entities that were primarily political organizations rather than charities or social-welfare organizations.
Making that distinction, after all, was the I.R.S. employees’ job. As the report details, from 2010 onwards, there was a significant rise in the number of applications for tax-exempt status. (In 2011, the I.R.S. received almost sixty thousand applications for tax-exempt status as 501©3 charities and more than two thousand as 501©4 social-welfare organizations.) Given the rise of the Tea Party, it is probably safe to assume that many of these new groups had emerged from the populist right. With limited staffing and resources, the Cincinnati office may have realized that it couldn’t examine every application in detail. About seventy per cent of applications were approved after an initial review, with few or no demands for further information from the groups concerned. The issue was how to isolate applications that merited further inspection, and, in May, 2010, somebody in the Cincinnati office came up with the “Be On the Lookout” criteria related to the Tea Party.
As the report notes, “the criteria developed by the Determinations Unit gives the appearance that the IRS is not impartial in conducting its mission.” But appearances can be deceptive, and, outside of Washington, hard-working employees aren’t usually judged (and convicted) merely on the basis of them. If a cabal of I.R.S. employees had been engaged in a politically inspired plot to target the right, would they have formalized their criteria in a spreadsheet that any of their bosses could have inspected? Far from hiding what they intended to do, they showed the new set of criteria to their immediate supervisors, who didn’t see a problem with it, either. Didn’t anybody realize the whole thing could blow up? Apparently not. As detailed in the report, the real sin committed by the I.R.S. employees was that they “did not consider the public perception” of what they were doing.
That was silly of them. But was it wrong?
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