Following Rachel’s reporting last night, an inspector general’s report on the Internal Revenue Service sheds new light on the scrutiny political groups received when applying for tax-exempt status in recent years. The IG’s materials are online here and here (pdf), but let’s review what we now know. Ezra Klein had a good take on this.
Much of the report is about confusion, incompetence, and unacceptable delays in the IRS unit that manages questionable 501(c)(4) applications. There’s no allegation here of politicization. But it’s nevertheless unacceptable.
Quite right. There’s a temptation to look at this as a purely political story, with President Obama’s detractors eager to find Nixonian parallels, but folks looking for a White House scandal are going to be terribly disappointed by the facts. That doesn’t mean, however, the IG’s report paints a flattering picture of the Internal Revenue Service.
On the contrary, the investigation points to an IRS with confused bureaucrats, internal breakdowns in communication between staff and management, and an excessively slow process that did harm to groups – some political, some not – that needed greater efficiency to qualify for 501(c)4 status.
Note, just because this controversy appears to have nothing to do with the president or the White House doesn’t mean it’s unimportant. I feel like, especially over the last several days, there’s a temptation among some to look ahead and only express an interest in “scandals” that threaten the Obama presidency. That’s a needlessly narrow perspective – the IRS seems to have struggled with incompetence and mismanagement, and that matters even if it will have no bearing on Obama’s standing.
But it appears old habits die hard.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said last night that he believes, without proof, that the IRS was “getting pressure from somebody either high up in the Obama campaign or high up in the White House.” There’s literally nothing to support that argument – the Washington Post noted that the IG report “did not find evidence that the actions were motivated by partisan interests,” and the report itself added that the criteria used to evaluate groups’ applications “were not influenced by any individual or organization outside the IRS.”
The next steps, then, should focus less on conspiracy theories and overwrought Nixon comparisons, and more on improved IRS oversight, a clearer process, and internal reforms to prevent future controversies. Policymakers can start by clarifying what in the world a 501(c)4 status is for and what qualifies a group for the status.