When all the shouting about the IRS targeting of tea party groups dies down, Congress or the IRS will realize that the relevant tax law is devilishly hard to enforce fairly.
Lawmakers are sputtering with rage at revelations the IRS gave extra scrutiny to conservative organizations seeking nonprofit status during the last political campaign.
But when Congress and President Obama stop howling and start trying to fix the problem, there appear to be two ways forward: Either rely on the IRS to listen to the recommendations of the Treasury Department inspector general’s report released Tuesday and make do with a muddled piece of campaign-finance law or move to sharpen and shape the law so IRS can enforce it with more consistency.
“What has been missed in the outrage is the recognition that this problem arose from much deeper sources than the poor judgment or possible partisan bias of a handful of IRS employees,” says Lloyd Mayer, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame, in an e-mail. “Congress has given the IRS the difficult task of applying an incredibly vague definition of political activity and an uncertain standard for how much political activity tax-exempt social welfare organizations may engage in.”
The Treasury Department’s inspector general report touches on the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups from local tea party organizations to massive national conservative outfits run by leading party strategists in 2011 and 2012. It outlines ways the agency could better police itself from the inside moving forward.
The report says IRS reviewers tasked with deciphering applications had little clue how to apply the relevant piece of tax law.
In short, IRS agents are required to determine whether so-called social welfare organizations (otherwise known as 501(c)4 groups, after the relevant piece of tax code) are, in fact, engaged in promoting social welfare and don’t spend a majority of their time engaged in partisan political activity.
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