The Justice Department has launched a criminal investigation of the Internal Revenue Service after the agency apologized this week for what it called “inappropriate” targeting of conservative political groups seeking tax-exempt status. It may be difficult for the government to prove that any actual crimes were committed, but that does not mean that what the IRS is accused of doing wasn’t wrong. Absolutely wrong.
IRS offices in several states singled out for additional scrutiny applications for tax exemption from organizations that had words like “tea party” and “patriot” in their names.
In some cases, applications were ignored or delayed for years, and applicants were asked questions that were tedious or impossible to answer, or, quite possibly, illegal.
This is hardly the first time the money-collecting arm of the government has been accused of bias. In the 1920s, the service was rife with corruption; agents colluded with gangsters and routinely accepted bribes until Congress stepped in and cleaned house. President Richard M. Nixon created the agency’s Special Services Staff to go after his political enemies, and President Bill Clinton’s administration was accused of using the IRS to challenge the tax exemption of churches critical of him.
Granted, the service’s job is not easy. In allowing organizations to receive tax-free donations, it must draw difficult distinctions between what is charitable, what is educational and what is political. It has a duty to scrutinize applications thoroughly. If it did not, there would be no assurance that tax-exempt organizations were using the money they collect for the purposes they have promised.
But to subject applicants to different levels of scrutiny based on their political bent is reprehensible.
No one enjoys paying taxes, but we realize that they are necessary for government to provide the services we need and want. We pay taxes with the understanding that they are being applied fairly. It’s the least we can expect.
It’s scandals like this one that erode our trust in government and encourage people to avoid paying their fair share. The damage inflicted on the national treasury by the behavior of the IRS employees responsible is incalculable but great.
Heads should roll.