Scandal or snafu?

The IRS mess is about dysfunction, not conspiracy

Does the name “Tea Party” suggest a social-welfare organization to you? Or a political group? Most people, we suspect, would say the latter. And that, in a nutshell, is the crux of the so-called scandal afflicting the Internal Revenue Service.

As The New York Times reported Sunday in a major investigative piece, the controversy had its source in a small group of agents in the IRS’ Cincinnati office whose job was to process applications for tax-exempt status. Social-welfare organizations such as churches and charities qualify, but organizations that are primarily political do not. The rules are fuzzy, and deciding whether a group warrants tax exemption can be difficult.

Over several years, the Cincinnati office was overwhelmed by thousands of applicants, hundreds of them identifying themselves as part of the Tea Party. A lone specialist who focused on the Tea Party groups, reported the Times, “used ‘political sounding’ criteria—words like ‘patriots,’ ‘we the people’—as a way to search efficiently through the flood of applications…” At some point complaints led the IRS’ inspector general to look into the matter and issue a report.

Since the “scandal” went public, politicians of all stripes, from President Obama on down, have lined up to accuse the IRS of deliberately targeting conservative activists, violating the public trust.

In fact, the Times reports, it was more a matter of “an understaffed Cincinnati outpost that was alienated from the broader IRS culture and given little direction.” Confused about the rules they were enforcing, the agents tagged nearly 400 organizations with Tea Party in their names, but they also tagged at least two dozen liberal-leaning organizations and some that seemed apolitical.

Ultimately, this incident says more about the dysfunction and disarray of the IRS than any conspiracy to target conservative groups. Of course, Republicans and other Obama-haters are doing all they can to put the blame on the president, even though it’s clear that he was unaware of the problems until the inspector general issued his report.