Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

With IRS defanged, politics can run rampant

By Gloria Borger, CNN Chief Political Analyst
updated 9:23 AM EDT, Thu May 16, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gloria Borger: After IRS scandal, it's open season for political nonprofits
  • She says the agency was wrong to target conservative groups
  • Still, the IRS is needed to keep political groups from posing as nonprofits, she says
  • Borger: IRS focused on small fry, left big organizations free to spend on politics

(CNN) -- One of the most perverse results of the IRS's lame, overzealous -- and possibly criminal -- behavior in looking into the tax-exempt applications of assorted advocacy groups is this: They're a lot safer from scrutiny today than they were yesterday.

After this IRS mess, who in government is going to be in a rush to take on -- or try to regulate -- the groups they should actually be looking at as political operations, overt or covert? Um, not many.

Here's the real deal: It's an open secret in Washington that some of these groups, which spent huge amounts of money during presidential campaigns, are politically aligned. Whatever their "labels," as the IRS might call them, they have been tax-exempt because they claim to be dealing with issues rather than elections. That is, policy, not political candidates. But in the heat of a general election, when policy is politics, how can anyone tell the difference?

Gloria Borger
Gloria Borger

Priorities USA is a Democratic brand; Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS isn't likely to do anything other than help the GOP. To gain their tax-exempt status, they're supposed to promote the "social welfare." What, exactly, does that mean?

It's a complicated question that has become infinitely more complex in the wake of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which allowed corporations to start donating directly to activist groups. Suddenly, the potential of getting some dibs on their considerable money grew larger. The groups designated as 501(c)(4) became the perfect pots to hold the dough, and they swelled, literally and figuratively. And the IRS didn't do much about it.

It might have been a better idea, rather than embarking on what seems like a potentially criminal political fishing expedition, to actually take a look at the huge amounts of money being spent out in the open during the last campaign.

Rumsfeld: Scandals are the perfect storm

Why wasn't the IRS "scrutinizing the big fish," asks Paul Ryan, the chief lawyer for the Campaign Legal Center, a watchdog group that has pushed (unsuccessfully) for the IRS to investigate these groups. "The IRS needs to be focused on the big fish and not on the little Mom and Pop tea party groups, and certainly not based on their political ideology."

Ah, but that's exactly what happened -- and, as a result, these groups that, according to some estimates, collectively spent over $250 million on candidates during the last election are still tax-exempt. Can it be that the IRS investigators were so silly, clueless and unaware of their appropriate role? Alas, yes.

But the legal eagles reading and interpreting the IRS laws are obviously a lot smarter. In its description of the 501(c)(4) category, the IRS lays it out pretty plainly. "Examples" of organizations under this statute that would be considered tax-exempt, it says, are "civic associations and volunteer fire companies." Hmmm. Not exactly political in any way, shape or form. What's more, the IRS also makes it clear that, in order to qualify, the burden is to prove that "your organization is organized exclusively (italics mine) to promote social welfare."

But according to Ryan, the gremlins (i.e. the lawyers) have managed to figure out a way to get around this. The new "perceived line," he explains, is that all these groups need to do is spend less than half of their money on politics. He calls it the "tax lawyer community interpretation." Huh? Is that how we're running the government?

So if these groups spend less than half of their money on politically related activism, the dough they collect from big corporations and donors can be used for campaign activities, all without disclosure of where the money came from.

This has not escaped the notice of Congress, especially Democrats who have been outgunned by Republican-leaning groups.

"We urge you to protect legitimate section 501(c)(4) entities by preventing non-conforming organizations that are focused on federal election activities from abusing the tax code," seven Democratic U.S. senators wrote then-IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman last year.

What makes sense is for the IRS to make sure that its laws are followed. Citizens can at least expect that their government might know the difference between quashing political dissent and legitimate inquiry. Fishing expeditions on political-sounding names is just stupid, if not venal.

And now, the obvious -- and perverse -- consequence of the IRS bungling: It has just made the world safer for tax lawyers. Your taxpayer dollars at work.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

CNN's Kevin Bohn contributed to this article.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016.
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT