When it comes to politics, excess is not considered a problem. There’s a daily parade of talking heads espousing talking points endlessly and sometimes almost hysterically about the shortcomings and failures — real or imagined — committed by those in the opposing political party. Nothing about this is new. What has changed is the immediacy and constancy this din has taken on with today’s 24/7 media — both broadcast and online. Most of this verbal warfare is typically factually inaccurate, even nonsensical — a stream of continuous babel.
The party out of power, or at least not holding the presidency, is often the most bellicose, so for the last several years we have been treated to Republicans combining gross exaggeration with hyperbolic assertions in an attempt to divert attention from their own dismal shortcomings when it comes to sensible governance. Thus we find the news currently filled with conservative shock and outrage at a so-called IRS “scandal.”
The reality is, this scandal fails pragmatic examination almost completely. Yes, a combination of a huge increase in the number of organizations seeking 501(c)(4) tax-exempt status, a small, overworked staff in a backwater midwest IRS office, vague criteria and shifting management directives resulted in one or more staffers using specific terms, such as conservative and tea party, to sort out from many thousands of applications a manageable category. This is, to me, a non-issue given the non-partisan motivation behind it. What appears to be inappropriate behavior actually has a reasonable basis given the circumstances and details.
The overall classification criterion for this tax-exempt category is organizations dedicated to improving social welfare, a somewhat vague term, with limited political activity. But it’s well known that many 501(c)(4) organizations are political organizations gaming the rules for this particular tax-exempt status for one specific reason: this category allows keeping the names of donors secret. So it’s not surprising that conservative/tea party organizations that are hostile to taxation in general and seeking to avoid publicity, would be suspect. And, it is the function of the IRS to determine the legitimacy of applications for 501(c)(4) status.
With more than 400 such applications being submitted in 2010/11 among thousands of others, there was good reason for trying to gain efficiency with word searches while increasing the degree of investigation. After all, examiners have to decide if each organization is at least 51 percent social welfare and no more than 49 percent political activity. If the IRS didn’t do due diligence, it wouldn’t be fulfilling its responsibilities and duties. Due diligence is in the details.
There are reasonable questions to be asked regarding this tax-exempt category. What is the purpose for the existence of 501(c)(4), what are the criteria used to determine qualification and what is the rationale for allowing secret donors. As with so much of U.S. tax code, 501(c)(4) represents both an opportunity to encourage organizations actually working for improved quality of life in society and also an opportunity for other organizations with other agendas to try and use this exemption for purposes unintended by the code. The ability to hide donor names is the real motivation, and problem, with this exemption, and I’ve yet to see a compelling justification for its inclusion.
So the IRS, by law, has the task of distinguishing which applicants deserve approval for this category. Using certain search terms might appear inappropriate, but it’s hardly a scandal, and most reasonable people would consider the misuse of this tax exemption worse than the methodology used to catch those organizations that are attempting to acquire 501(c)(4) status for dishonest reasons. Social welfare may be affected by politics, but that doesn’t mean political organizations qualify for the category.
When it comes to honesty and integrity, politics is too often not an example of these. The work of governing effectively for the greater good is consistently undermined by the circus of political rhetoric and posturing. When it comes to responsible governance, the U.S. has become a dismal example of dysfunction, and only voters who demand change and want practical, effective representation can alter the inexorable decline of the country. No country is perfect, but this one seems hell bent on proving that the phrase “greatest country in the world” is simply more rhetoric.