The roots of the dispute go back to the founding of the Tea Party, a right-wing reaction to Barack Obama’s election as President. We have to remember that the immediate inspiration in 2009 was a television commentator’s rant about a policy that the administration had never proposed. In other words, from the beginning the Tea Party was based on fearful delusions, not reality.
Then in 2010 the Supreme Court by a 5-4 vote overturned decades of precedents in the Citizens United case, opening the door for 501(c)(4) corporations to advertise and otherwise engage in political campaigns without revealing their funders. Naturally, that appealed to lots of groups engaged in some political activity. Many of those were “Tea Party” groups—some genuine grass-roots organizations, some “Astroturfed” fronts for established lobbies, and a few probably scams to enrich their organizers at the expense of gullible OIP Derangement Syndrome sufferers.
All 501(c)(4) corporations are supposed to be “social welfare” organizations, and under a 1950s statute they’re not supposed to benefit just a few people or to be involved in politics at all. But drawing the line between political and “social welfare” activity is hard, so the IRS ruled that such corporations had to devote less than half of their activity to politicking.
Those rules require the IRS to determine who benefits from a 501(c)(4) corporation’s work and how much effort it puts into politics. In fact, the rules require a detailed examination. If the corporation spends 51% of its efforts on political campaigns, it’s not eligible for tax-exempt status; if it spends 49%, it is. The only way the IRS can determine the facts is by asking each organization for answers and documentation.
Of course, it was tough for Tea Party groups to document that they weren’t putting most of their efforts into political activities since they were founded as political organizations. They advocated particular policies and campaigned for or against particular candidates. Many Tea Party members told the media that they’d never been involved in politics before joining the movement—and yet for legal advantages Tea Party groups told the IRS that they weren’t primarily involved in politics at all.
One of the traits uniting and defining the American right wing, including the Tea Party, is paranoid resentment of the government—at least when it’s not offering them benefits and advantages. This attitude became even more pronounced under President Obama. So some of those groups complained to a sympathetic ear: Rep. Darrell Issa, who already showed signs of OIP Derangement Syndrome.
Issa demanded that the IRS investigate whether it was scrutinizing applications from Tea Party groups more strictly than others. Inspector General J. Russell George found that the agency had circulated “Be On the Lookout” (BOLO) lists warning that groups using the terms “Tea Party” and “Patriot” might be primarily political and therefore not eligible for tax-exempt status. This actually seems like common sense, but it would be discriminatory if the agency had done this only for groups on the political right.
IRS managers set up a way to divulge George’s report. It produced a wave of outrage in Washington. People lost their jobs. There are court cases pending. But that wasn’t enough for people with OIP Derangement Syndrome. They insisted, without having any evidence, that the Obama administration had instigated the extra scrutiny. They declared that this scandal was “worse than Watergate.”
Since then, however, we’ve learned that:
- The IRS also issued BOLO lists for terms like “progressive” and “occupy/occupation.” Groups on the left also faced scrutiny; they just weren’t so whiny about it.
- George’s report itself stated that most of the corporations undergoing special scrutiny weren’t “Tea Party” groups. The only organization that actually lost 501(c)(4) status in recent years was on the left.
- The BOLO lists and instructions all came from the IRS’s Cincinnati office, according to manager who described himself as a “conservative Republican.”
Issa demonstrated his OIP Derangement Syndrome by releasing partial transcripts of testimony. leaving out parts that undercut his delusion of a political conspiracy. He complained when Rep. Elijah Cummings provided us with a fuller picture. But Issa had really been acting from OIP Derangement Syndrome all along. As The Hill reported:
The Treasury inspector general (IG) whose report helped drive the IRS targeting controversy says it limited its examination to conservative groups because of a request from House Republicans.This week George said he had never seen the documents about scrutiny of groups on the left. But Issa hadn’t asked him to look for them. Under OIP Derangement Syndrome, he was convinced that wasn’t necessary.
A spokesman for Russell George, Treasury’s inspector general for tax administration, said they were asked by House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) “to narrowly focus on Tea Party organizations.”