Washington is still reeling from the revelation on Friday that the IRS has been singling out Tea Party groups for extra scrutiny. The news immediately drew howls of bipartisan protest, and pretty much everyone agrees that using the tax system to target political enemies is not what happens in a healthy democracy.
The optics are incredibly bad for President Obama, who has apologized, but it's useful to put things in perspective. For starters, the IRS has a legitimate reason for looking into Tea Party and similar groups. The New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin explains:
It's important to review why the Tea Party groups were petitioning the I.R.S. anyway. They were seeking approval to operate under section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code. This would require them to be "social welfare," not political, operations. There are significant advantages to being a 501(c)(4). These groups don't pay taxes; they don't have to disclose their donors--unlike traditional political organizations, such as political-action committees. In return for the tax advantage and the secrecy, the 501(c)(4) organizations must refrain from traditional partisan political activity, like endorsing candidates.
And the conservative groups weren't targeted in the sense that their phones were being tapped or their members were being followed. More like they were being wrapped in red tape. And by red tape, we mean a six-page questionnaire seeking detailed information about the group's membership, funding, programming, political involvement and related matters.
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The IRS says that about 300 conservative groups were singled out for this scrutiny, at least two of them local. CBS 11's Jason Allen reports that both the North East Tarrant Tea Party and the Allen Area Patriots had their applications for tax-exemption inexplicably held up.
When they were asked to fill out the questionnaire, NETTP co-founder Julie McCarty said the group refused to divulge much of the requested information. "You think there's not a reason they want every name?" she told CBS 11. "You're setting people up for harassment, intimidation."
For a better idea of what the group was asked to answer, Slate posted the six-page query sent to the Hawaii Tea Party. It's detailed, but the questions aren't outrageous considering the organization is asking to be declared a social welfare organization to avoid paying taxes.
The Morning News' Nicole Stockdale sums it up nicely: "The screw-up here isn't that the IRS was targeting conservative groups; it's that they weren't also targeting liberal groups."