Reports that the Internal Revenue Service gave additional scrutiny to conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status is reason for concern. The IRS is among the most powerful and punitive federal agencies. Using that authority to single out any group or movement for tougher treatment goes against our nation's democratic principles.
According to various reports, an inspector general will release a report this week outlining how IRS workers used trigger names - such as "tea party" or "patriot" and other names that would suggest promotion of right-wing agendas - to decide whether to ask more questions or demand more information.
The tougher reviews focused on applications to gain 501(c)(4) tax-exempt status. The status can be granted to groups that promote "social-welfare" agendas, and that can mean advocating that the social welfare would be better off with less government. The tax status prohibits groups from becoming involved directly in political-campaign activity.
In assessing these applications the IRS should provide equal treatment regardless of a group's position on the political spectrum. We call upon the Obama administration to be fully transparent in providing all relevant information as to how and why this happened, who gave approval, and who was disciplined.
The IRS contends that the inspector general's report will show that the targeted reviews, dating as far back as 2010, were initiated by lower-level civil servants and that upper management stopped the practice when it became aware. According to the pending report, an application was more likely to face a probe if "statements in the case file criticize how the country is being run."
That is chilling.
There are indications that then-IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman knew about the misconduct when he told a congressional committee in March 2012 that there was no targeting of conservative groups. The IRS has responded with a lawyerly explanation: "IRS senior leadership was not aware of this level of specific detail" at the time of the March 2012 hearing. But Mr. Shulman knew something, apparently, and should have said so.
We don't like this tax exempt specification. Congress should eliminate it because it allows these organizations to hide the identity of donors seeking to influence public policy. But that is beside the point. It is the law and the IRS should carry out the law impartially.