Editorial: Healing the IRS
AP PHOTO Ousted IRS Chief Steve Miller, left, and former IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman talk during a break in testimony Tuesday at a hearing at the Senate Finance Committee. Purchase photo reprints »
On Tuesday in Washington, the former commissioner of the IRS told a Senate panel that he was “dismayed” and “saddened” by an investigative report that concluded the IRS had wrongly targeted conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status. Earlier, Douglas Shulman, a Bush appointee whose six-year term ended in November 2012, had “absolutely” insisted no targeting took place. Nor had he nor his now-fired successor, Steven Miller, disclosed the information after becoming aware of the practice.
We hope the congressional hearings, which are expected to continue today, will go beyond expressions of dismay and sadness. We hope they’ll shed much-needed light on a murky mess that has inevitably gotten enmeshed in bitter partisan politics.
What’s known so far is that, beginning in 2010, IRS workers scrutinizing applications from groups applying for tax-exempt status — many with tea party and other conservative affiliations — started asking some for donor lists, membership lists, meeting minutes and other materials.
Shulman, Miller and others say in the IRS’s defense that ideology wasn’t involved in looking at conservative groups. They say the agency’s mistake was in not having a better, fairer method for searching through the increasing number of groups seeking tax exemptions.
But the IRS demands were, by some accounts, a time-consuming bureaucratic nightmare for the groups involved and the scrutiny amounted to politically motivated harassment.
The IRS says it was only trying to enforce a complicated tax code that allows groups that claim their primary mission is promoting “social welfare” to engage in limited political activity. Groups classified as 501(c)(4)’s can produce issue ads, for example, as long they show that politics isn’t their primary purpose.
If that sounds like a rule that’s confusing, cumbersome and rife with loopholes — well, it is. If the powers that be in Washington want constructive change to emerge from this mess, they could start with a clear-eyed, dispassionate review and overhaul of a tax code that has such potential for abuse.
And speaking of abuse: There is, as yet, no evidence — contrary to the Watergate references being cast about — that President Obama, or anyone close to him, ordered the scrutiny of conservative groups as part of a deliberate effort to destroy political enemies.
But the Obama administration must do more than denounce what happened. It must clearly demonstrate that it supports finding out exactly what happened, and why, and take steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again. In short, it has to take a stronger lead in fixing what went wrong at the IRS.
Why? Because the agency that collects hard-earned money from American citizens should at least be competent and impartial. Americans are never going to love the IRS, but they need to feel it is fair.
And right now, many Americans — already deeply distrustful of big government — think the IRS is anything but. The burden is on our elected and appointed leaders to turn that around.