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home : opinions : opinions May 25, 2016

5/21/2013 1:01:00 PM
Commentary: Crossing sacred lines of legal, illegal
David M. Shribman

You don’t have to be a member of the tea party to be outraged over the Internal Revenue Service’s special and unwarranted scrutiny of conservative groups. I’m not, and I am.

For four decades liberals have nursed hurts over the Nixon administration’s use of the IRS to intimidate if not punish its political opponents. The very first item in Article II of the House Judiciary Committee resolution impeaching Nixon speaks of “violating the constitutional rights of citizens” and the improper examination of “confidential information contained in income tax returns.”

One thing a second-term president wants to avoid is appearing in the same sentence with the word “Nixon,” and so the IRS forays during the Obama years, combined with the disclosure that the Justice Department obtained phone records of Associated Press reporters and editors, puts the current administration in unusual peril.

Yes, the Nixon comparisons are superficial, and no, history never repeats itself, but yes, last week was a very bad one for President Barack Obama and portends rough weather ahead.

But these twin incursions into well-established rights underline two principles that should be sacred: Never mess with the work of an independent press. Never use the taxing authority of the government for political ends.

No two institutions of American governance are more precious and deserving of caution from officials who -- and here Republicans and Democrats are equally vulnerable to sin -- believe they have reason to deplore the one and abuse the other.

So there are two scandals here, and all Americans should be concerned about them both. But there is a third scandal unearthed by last week’s events, and it comes under the familiar dictum that scandal usually isn’t about what’s illegal, but what is legal.

Here is what is legal and at the heart of this month’s contretemps: It is legal for 501(c)(4) organizations -- conservative groups, such as the various permutations of the tea party, as well as many liberal groups, such as Priorities USA -- to have tax exemptions under the claim that they are primarily involved in the promotion of social welfare. The promotion of social welfare is an elusive concept. Its virtue is almost always in the eyes of the beholder, if not the donor.

This is not a new issue. More than nine months ago, 10 Republican senators, including some regarded by Democrats as among the most open-minded and even-handed of their rivals, contacted Douglas H. Shulman, then-IRS commissioner, to express concern that political factors were affecting the agency’s activities.

Nine years ago the American Bar Association created a task force to examine this question and found there was “no statutory basis” for the principle “that social welfare does not include political intervention.”

Indeed, in 1990 the director of the IRS Exempt Organizations Technical Division told a conference: “When it comes to political activities -- that is, giving money to a candidate, telling people to vote for a certain candidate -- the rule is that it has to be less than primary. If it’s 49 percent of their income, that is less than primary.”

That’s the principle guiding the use of all that principal. But it’s not a good one, as it allows all sorts of groups to raise enormous amounts of money and then devote 49 percent of it to political purposes without tax exposure.

Last week an unusual breeze of fairness blew through the capital, often from unlikely sources.

Consider these remarks from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada: “There are these shadowy political groups masquerading as social welfare organizations in order to solicit anonymous donations from we don’t know who -- big corporations and also wealthy people. That needs to stop. We do not know exactly how much money was spent in the last election by these groups, and I acknowledge most of the money was spent on the right wing, but there was plenty on the left wing.”

Here is the scary thing: USA Today reports that the IRS approved nonprofit status for liberal groups at the same time it was denying that status for conservative groups. Rhetoricians at the University of Pittsburgh and Jesus College, Cambridge, have developed a theory of “keywords,” and it doesn’t take a Pitt or Cambridge degree to ascertain the political leanings of a group with a name such as Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment, which received tax-exempt status at the time when tea party groups employing words such as “patriot” did not.

None of this is good for the Obama administration, which otherwise would have had something big to crow about last week. Revised nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office figures put the federal budget deficit at $642 billion. That marks a $203 billion improvement from earlier forecasts -- and eerily, $203 billion was the size of 1981 deficit, expressed in today’s dollars, that propelled Ronald Reagan into office.

But that wasn’t the predominant discussion of the week. Instead, the talk was of how the administration breached some of the most sacred lines in American life. First Amendment purists are right that attacking press prerogatives is an attack on American values. And maybe conservatives are right about taxes, because the type of flat tax they espouse could help take the IRS out of politics and make all of these exemptions meaningless.

(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (dshribman@post-gazette.com). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.)

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Reader Comments

Posted: Wednesday, May 22, 2013
Article comment by: The Root Defect Is...

in the income tax laws themselves. We need to
rid the tax laws of all of the following deductions:
1. charity
2. religious
3. medical
4. interest
5. child/dependents
... etc.

Allow everyone to earn up to $100K free of
income tax....Then tax evey amount earn over

Posted: Wednesday, May 22, 2013
Article comment by: Slater Slater

Nothing will EVER change.Nobody remembers
anything (or they go to prison) I'll take the fifth
(or go to jail).
The games been played since 1776 and ya
think your ever gonna change it?NOT

Posted: Wednesday, May 22, 2013
Article comment by: Nero Claudius

Tiny violins...splendid idea! Let's all fiddle while freedom founders.

Posted: Wednesday, May 22, 2013
Article comment by: Tom Babbitt

I have a tiny violin just for you.

Posted: Wednesday, May 22, 2013
Article comment by: Nux Man

Mr. Shribman makes some good points, but to quote Harry Reid's "concerns" as though some political tide is turning is patently false: Quick web search found Harry's top donor in the 2011-12 election cycle was MGM Resorts Int., which has 9 lobbyists (yep, MGM needs lobbyists), 7 of which are former govt. employees (all dems). Other top donors are Blackstone Group (more shadows there than Harry's closet), and JPMorgan Chase,............ can anyone say 1%?
Stay calm liberals, the repubs list isn't any less impressive.
The plain truth is we can't trust anything said by a D.C. Politician, any of them. We vote for folks to fix the nonsense, only to watch them perverted/subverted by the power trip.
All faith in government is fading fast.

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