Alex Seitz-Wald’s “When the IRS targeted liberals” at Salon.com makes a couple of points that help to put the latest dust-up about the IRS targeting political groups in clearer perspective:
While few are defending the Internal Revenue Service for targeting some 300 conservative groups, there are two critical pieces of context missing from the conventional wisdom on the “scandal.” First, at least from what we know so far, the groups were not targeted in a political vendetta — but rather were executing a makeshift enforcement test (an ugly one, mind you) for IRS employees tasked with separating political groups not allowed to claim tax-exempt status, from bona fide social welfare organizations. Employees are given almost zero official guidance on how to do that, so they went after Tea Party groups because those seemed like they might be political. Keep in mind, the commissioner of the IRS at the time was a Bush appointee.
The second is that while this is the first time this kind of thing has become a national scandal, it’s not the first time such activity has occurred….”I wish there was more GOP interest when I raised the same issue during the Bush administration, where they audited a progressive church in my district in what look liked a very selective way,” California Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff said on MSNBC Monday. “I found only one Republican, [North Carolina Rep. Walter Jones], that would join me in calling for an investigation during the Bush administration. I’m glad now that the GOP has found interest in this issue and it ought to be a bipartisan concern.”
The well-known church, All Saints Episcopal in Pasadena, became a bit of a cause célèbre on the left after the IRS threatened to revoke the church’s tax-exempt status over an anti-Iraq War sermon the Sunday before the 2004 election. “Jesus [would say], ‘Mr. President, your doctrine of preemptive war is a failed doctrine,'” rector George Regas said from the dais.
Shouldn’t Democrats insist, make that demand, loud, clear and relentlessly, that any probe of I.R.S. political activity also include an investigation of abuses against progressive organizations?
Seitz-Wald adds “And while All Saints came under the gun, conservative churches across the country were helping to mobilize voters for Bush with little oversight.” A couple of conservative churches in Ohio were said to have “essentially campaigned for a Republican gubernatorial candidate…and even flew him on one of their planes.” And then there is the harassment of the NAACP during he Bush administration:
And it wasn’t just churches. In 2004, the IRS went after the NAACP, auditing the nation’s oldest civil rights group after its chairman criticized President Bush for being the first sitting president since Herbert Hoover not to address the organization. “They are saying if you criticize the president we are going to take your tax exemption away from you,” then-chairman Julian Bond said. “It’s pretty obvious that the complainant was someone who doesn’t believe George Bush should be criticized, and it’s obvious of their response that the IRS believes this, too.”
In a letter to the IRS, Democratic Reps. Charles Rangel, Pete Stark and John Conyers wrote: “It is obvious that the timing of this IRS examination is nothing more than an effort to intimidate the members of the NAACP, and the communities the organization represents, in their get-out-the-vote effort nationwide.”
Greenpeace was also targeted by he I.R.S. under Bush, reports Seitz-Wald, at the behest of an organization heavily subsidized by Exxon Mobil Oil Co., which Greenpeace had labeled the “No. 1 climate criminal.”
None of this is to argue that there should be no accountability for the latest I.R.S. abuses — only that any probe and punishments should be scrupulously nonpartisan. Otherwise it’s a partisan farce masquerading as concern about ethics.