The Internal Revenue Service is preparing for an expanded role as the collection agency and enforcement arm for the embattled Affordable Care Act. In what the Treasury Department calls “the largest expansion of IRS responsibilities in recent history,” the IRS will be enlisted to gather and maintain enrollment information, levy fines, and distribute insurance subsidies. Given how the IRS has misused its power in recent years, the prospect of a supersized, superempowered IRS should give us pause.
It pays to recall that from early 2010 through early 2013, the IRS division charged with reviewing applications for nonprofit status scoured applications for “anti-Obama rhetoric,” “negative Obama commentary,” and words such as “patriot” and “tea party.” The notion that terms like “tea party” or “patriot” would be a red flag for tax-agency scrutiny in America — a country born out of a tax revolt — gives fresh meaning to irony. But that was just the tip of the iceberg.
The IRS demanded that flagged organizations produce donor lists (something outside normal procedure). Some applicants were required to fill out 88-page questionnaires. Others were ordered to hand over correspondence, screenshots of their Facebook and Twitter accounts, and information about the books their leadership was reading. As Politico concluded, “The agency wanted to know everything.” Many groups saw their applications languish for years. One group heard nothing from the IRS for 459 days and then was required to produce 90 pieces of corroborating documentation in less than three weeks, at which time the application file would be closed and denied. Some groups simply gave up.
The IRS initially blamed all this on “rogue” employees. In fact, the effort to screen and slow-walk conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status, which the president rightly called “inexcusable,” was systemic and planned. As Forbes magazine detailed in an excellent timeline of the scandal, by August 2010 the IRS had developed “be on the lookout” criteria for flagging and reviewing so-called “tea party” organizations applying for 501(c)(3) or 501(c)(4) tax-exempt status. By June 2011, the director of the IRS office of tax-exempt organizations was advised of the microtargeting operation.
When the scandal finally came to light in May 2013, the president declared, “I will not tolerate this kind of behavior in any agency, but especially in the IRS, given the power that it has and the reach that it has into all of our lives. … (I)t should not matter what political stripe you’re from.”
He’s right about that, but we know that politics were the main reason the IRS did what it did. Here’s why.
Nonprofit status — especially 501(c)(3) status — is important for two reasons. First, it allows an organization to claim exemption from many forms of taxation. Second, it allows those who contribute to the organization to claim a tax deduction. Nonprofits operating under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code focus on religious, charitable, scientific, or educational activity. Under their “educational” mission, they are permitted to support or oppose policies by speaking before legislative bodies, convening events, and publishing materials. But they have to be careful about engaging in outright lobbying. Those 501(c)(3)s that do engage in lobbying have to fill out special forms and limit the amount of resources they devote to lobbying.
Nonprofits operating under section 501(c)(4), on the other hand, can engage in unlimited lobbying — but only if it falls within the organization’s mission. Unlike a 501(c)(3), a 501(c)(4) can engage in partisan political activity, endorse or oppose candidates, or donate money to campaigns. However, donations made to 501(c)(4)s are not deductible.
This detour through the tax code helps explain why politically motivated IRS reviewers slow-walked or flatly denied applications from certain groups: Without nonprofit status, those groups would be less able to raise money and hence less able to oppose or support certain policies and candidates. In other words, the actions of the IRS had a chilling effect on the legitimate, legal activities of dozens of nascent nonprofits and thousands of American citizens — before and during the elections of 2010 and 2012.
In fact, the Treasury Department inspector general found that 292 small-government groups were subjected to extra scrutiny by the IRS, while just six progressive groups were targeted. “Our audit found that 100 percent of the tax-exempt applications with ‘tea party,’ ‘patriots’ or ‘9/12’ in their names were processed as potential political cases,” the inspector general reported. But only 30 percent of groups with “progress” or “progressive” were flagged for extra scrutiny. (The 9/12 Project describes itself as “a volunteer based, non-partisan movement focusing on building and uniting our communities back to the place we were on 9/12/2001.”)
The unequal administration of justice is, by definition, unjust. And that should bother us as believers — regardless of political persuasion. An IRS microtargeting operation against left-wing groups like Code Pink or big-government groups like MoveOn.org would have been just as wrong, just as perverse, just as inexcusable.
Given that some 501(c)’s have, in the past, pushed the boundaries of their nonprofit status and engaged in outright politicking, a tightening of the tax-exempt law may be in order. But that should be done by lawmakers in statute — not politically motivated IRS officials.
But this is not really about the IRS or taxes. After all, Scripture tells us Jesus was “a friend of tax collectors.” He called on his followers to pay their taxes and respect the law, and so should we.
At its core, this is about fairness and the proper role of government. Our government exists to serve the people. The people do not exist to serve the government. Respect it, yes. Follow its laws, yes. Pray for its officials, absolutely. But not serve it. As Becky Gerritson, who heads one of the groups targeted by the IRS, said in testimony before Congress, “I’m not here as a serf or a vassal. I’m not begging my lord for mercy. I’m a born-free American woman, wife, mother, and citizen, and I’m telling my government that you’ve forgotten your place.”
At its core, this is about fairness and the proper role of government. Our government exists to serve the people. The people do not exist to serve the government. Respect it, yes. Follow its laws, yes. Pray for its officials, absolutely. But not serve it.
It’s fundamentally unjust to subject one group of citizens to a more stringent government test, to require them to do more to receive government approval for nonprofit status, to demand that they, in effect, prove their innocence before receiving that approval. As Jefferson said, America’s government is about “equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political.”
The unequal administration of justice is, by definition, unjust. And that should bother us as believers — regardless of political persuasion. An IRS microtargeting operation against left-wing groups like Code Pink or big-government groups like MoveOn.org would have been just as wrong, just as perverse, just as inexcusable. In this regard, it’s worth noting that the IRS logo features a scale — a timeless and universal symbol of justice.
The centrality of justice runs through the Bible. It was justice that cried out after Cain killed Abel. Leviticus 19 calls on all people to “use honest scales and honest weights.” Deuteronomy 16 warns, “Do not pervert justice or show partiality.” Psalm 58 asks a nation’s rulers, “Do you judge people with equity?” Isaiah dreamed of a day when “rulers will rule with justice.” Jesus promised to lead justice through to victory (Matthew 12, Luke 11).
Our government, like all things created and administered by human beings, is imperfect. Yet because it is made up of human beings, it has the capacity to know right from wrong, to use power responsibly. The IRS has failed to do that. Its poisoning of the nonprofit-review process calls into question its ability to handle the healthcare-related tasks that loom in the year ahead.