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Sizing Up the Scandal

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Well, yes, using the Internal Revenue Service for partisan political purposes is indeed a bad thing — one well worth exposing, amending, and, if need be, prosecuting. But let's be perfectly clear about something — it isn't Nixonism, despite all the parallels that congressional Republicans and their activists and allies in the punditocracy try to draw.

One difference is a matter of degree. So far as we know, there's been no burglary here and no plots to blow up the facilities of this or that imagined adversary group, no band of "plumbers" organized as a stealth force, no presidentially condoned "dirty tricks" corps, and, most importantly, no evidence of direct presidential authorization for any of this. In short, no Nixon.

That said, the targeting of real or imagined opposition groups for special treatment is something that shouldn't have happened and — it goes without saying but still needs to be said — shouldn't be allowed in the future. Of all federal agencies, the IRS is the one that has the least business of any taxpayer-funded organization to be making political distinctions between one group of taxpayers and another. It's bad enough that the agency has (understandably but still, for most of us, uncomfortably) de facto and de jure powers of investigation into our private finances. The IRS as overseer of our attitudes as well is intolerable.

And that said, we question the very rationale behind the 501(c)(4) category, the umbrella under which the apparently persecuted groups sought shelter from taxation as nonprofits and which, as we see it, gives too much leeway to many special-interest groups, left and right, who masquerade as "civic leagues, social welfare organizations, and local associations of employees." Those are the categories entitled to be tax-exempt under the congressionally approved IRS code.

But let's look at some of the hairs split regarding the code 501(c)(4) organizations: They may participate in politics "as long as these activities do not become their primary purpose." Come now. Which of the Tea Party organizations now affecting to be preyed-upon innocents can righteously and legitimately claim to be something other than primarily political?

Such groups can endorse candidates but are expected to pay taxes on any campaign spending as such. And — to continue in that anomalous vein — 501(c)(4) organizations may take part in political activity provided that activity is "not the primary activity of the organization."

Talk about fine distinctions! Confusion of this sort is ready-made, especially in the wake of the noxious Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court, to be bulldozed by the Karl Roves of the world. We — all of us, including the political activists who form these organizations — would be better off not depending on the government for a handout.

We're not saying — yet — that the 501(c)(4) category of nonprofits should be abolished. Some of the same arguments can be made for these organizations as are made for publicly financed election campaigns. But let's not let sanctimony over the recent uncovered abuses by the government obscure awareness of the equally flagrant deceits practiced by some of the alleged target groups. Here and there is sure to be a tyrannosaurus wearing sheep's clothing.

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