Weaponizing the IRS. Victoria O’Kane has a provocative title for her accusation of Lois Lerner misdeeds at the IRS. She complains that the IRS inappropriately targeted Tea Party groups which delayed them getting their tax exempt status, and that this “resulted in delays that kept conservative groups largely sidelined during the 2012 election cycle. While it is unknown how widely this affected the election’s outcome, it would be willfully blind to assume it had no effect. This is evidenced by the impact Tea Party groups had on the 2010 election in mobilizing and motivating people to vote.”
The 501(c)4 is a designation for groups performing “social welfare,” and has generally included nonprofit organizations like civic leagues and local volunteer fire departments. To qualify for 501(c)4 status, a group must be engaged in social welfare activities, but may participate in politics as long as it is not their main activity. The advantage for groups with 501(c)4 status is that they do not need to disclose their donors, allowing corporations and others to hide their political activities.
It became the IRS’s duty to ensure that the organizations applying for status were acting within the boundaries of the law, that their activities and expenditures were not primarily political in nature. The 2010 Supreme Court “Citizen’s United” decision (“corporations are people”) allowing unlimited corporate and labor union expenditures caused a flood of applications from groups seeking 501(c)4 designation. The IRS, bound by law to ensure that the groups were legitimate but overwhelmed by the number of applications, took some shortcuts, giving extra scrutiny to groups whose names might indicate they were more oriented towards politics than social welfare. “Tea party” and “patriot” were triggers for extra scrutiny.
The conservative outrage at the IRS’ actions can only be explained by their ignorance of what transpired. And if Victoria O’Kane’s views are representative, that ignorance is on full display. Essentially, O’Kane is arguing that the IRS, legally responsible for ensuring that groups whose main goal was political activity not receive 501(c)4 status, was trying to ensure that groups whose main goal was political activity not receive said status. But if the main goal of these groups was, as O’Kane states, to change the outcome of the election, then they didn’t qualify for 501(c)4 status in the first place. Her outrage at the IRS is that groups were not allowed to illegally influence elections. “How dare the IRS prevent us from breaking the law,” she and other outraged conservatives might very well be screaming.