President Obama on Monday expressed anger over news that the Internal Revenue Service targeted Tea Party groups for special scrutiny.
“If in fact IRS personnel were…intentionally targeting conservative groups, then that’s outrageous and there’s no place for it,” Obama said at a press conference. “They have to be held fully accountable.”
“You don’t want the IRS ever being perceived to be biased and anything less than neutral in terms of how they operate,” Obama continued. “I’ve got no patience with it, I will not tolerate it.”
Obama said he would wait until the release of an inspector general’s report later this week before commenting further.
But conservatives are rushing to pile on. Top House Republicans have promised hearings and a full investigation. Sen. Marco Rubio has called for the resignation of the agency’s acting director. Sen. Susan Collins on Sunday called the news “absolutely chilling” and “truly outrageous.” And at least one Tea Party group, calling the revelations “Nixon-esque,” has demanded the appointment of a special prosecutor. One Republican lawmaker has already introduced a bill to criminalize political bias at the IRS. A full audit by the IRS inspector general will be released this week.
Democrats, too, are acknowledging the seriousness of the scandal. Sen. Max Baucus of Montana called the IRS actions “an outrageous abuse of power and a breach of the public’s trust.” Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia denounced it as “ unacceptable and un-American,” calling for a Congressional probe. “Heads need to roll,” Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, said on msnbc Monday morning.
At the heart of the issue are efforts by many politically oriented groups on both sides of the political spectrum to convince the IRS to award them non-profit tax status. But what exactly do we know about what the IRS did? And just what was the extent of the wrong-doing?
Here’s a timeline of events, based on a draft of the IG report shown to Capitol Hill staff and leaked to NBC News and other outlets:
March 2010: A Determinations Unit in the agency’s Cincinnati office begins searching for groups who applied for no-profit status and whose names include “Tea Party,” “Patriots,” and “9/12 Project”—a Tea Party inspired movement launched by Glenn Beck. They also look for groups that “criticize how the country is being run.” Of the 298 groups selected for special scrutiny, The Washington Post reported, 72 had “tea party” in their title, 13 had “patriot” and 11 had “9/12.”
June 2011: Lois Lerner, the head of the agency’s exempt organizations division, is told of the effort, and “instruct[s] that the criteria be immediately revised,” the IG report found. Those criteria were then changed to “organizations involved with political, lobbying, or advocacy.” (In acknowledging to reporters on Friday that the targeting had occurred, Lerner said she learned about it from news reports.)
January 2012: The IRS adopts a new method, searching for “political action type organizations involved in limiting/expanding Government, educating on the Constitution and Bill of Rights, social economic reform movement.” Though it refers to limiting government and the Constitution—mainstays of the Tea Party movement—this description appears designed to pull in groups on both the right and left.
August 2011: The IRS’s top lawyer is briefed on “the latest information on the issue.”
February 2012: Amid public complaints by Tea Party groups about being singled out for unfair scrutiny, Lerner orders the Cincinnati office to stop demanding that those groups provide additional information to support their applications.
March 2012: Doug Shulman, at the time the IRS director, denies during testimony before Congress that targeting of conservative groups had occurred. “There’s absolutely no targeting,” Shulman, a Bush appointee whose six-year term ended in November, tells lawmakers. The IRS said in a statement released Saturday that “senior leadership” wasn’t aware of “this level of specific details” at the time that Shulman testified.
In other words, the scandal looks likely to center not just on the original wrongdoing—the use of biased criteria to target conservative groups. It also figures to turn on what IRS leadership, including Shulman and Lerner, knew about the effort and when, and whether their public comments—including Shulman’s testimony before Congress—were accurate and truthful. The current IRS acting commissioner, Steven Miller, was deputy commissioner under Shulman.
The IRS’s actions appear to be a ham-handed and badly misguided effort to address a legitimate issue. After the Citizens United ruling in January 2010 allowed corporations to intervene freely in election campaigns, the agency saw a surge in applications for non-profit status, especially 501(c)4 status, which allows them to intervene directly in elections, and not to disclose their donors. The law requires that 501(c)4s must have social welfare work as their prime activity, though they can do some election advocacy. Campaign-finance advocates have long been arguing that groups like Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS, as well as some supporting President Obama like Priorities USA, are flouting those strictures by conducting the vast majority of their work to influence elections, and have been calling on the IRS to step up their scrutiny of such groups.
“They’re spending tens of millions of dollars on TV ads in battleground states slamming or supporting candidates and claiming they have nothing to do with elections,” Paul Ryan of the Campaign Legal Center told msnbc.com. “It’s a total charade.”
Ryan called the IRS’s targeting of Tea Party groups “completely inappropriate.” But he raised the concern that the scandal will lead to calls for the IRS to pull back from enforcing campaign finance and tax laws more broadly.
“Now we’ll hear, ‘the IRS needs to back off, the IRS is being too aggressive,’” Ryan said. “In fact, the IRS needs to do more to enforce the restrictions on political activity.”