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SPOTLIGHT
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Scrutiny of IRS

Published on -5/14/2013, 2:15 PM

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The White House dislikes tea party groups so much it directed the Internal Revenue Service to harass them. That isn't true, but the rhetoric already being spun could lead one to believe as much.

"The admission by the Obama administration that the Internal Revenue Service targeted political opponents echoes some of the most shameful abuses of government power in 20th century American history," said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.

It doesn't seem to matter that the White House doesn't run the IRS, or that it was an appointee of President George W. Bush in charge of the organization during the time period in question, or even that President Barack Obama found out about the situation when the IRS was apologizing for it last Friday. At a press conference Monday, the president was deploring the practice as well.

"If, in fact, IRS personnel engaged in the kind of practices that had been reported on and were intentionally targeting conservative groups, then that's outrageous and there's no place for it," Obama said.

So it would appear there will be bipartisan condemnation of any action taken by the IRS that unfairly singled out tea party groups. As there should be, since bureaucratic decisions are supposed to be free of political influence. Government services, even those provided by an agency most people dislike such as the IRS, are supposed to be fairly applied.

Indeed, if tea party groups were singled out for treatment nobody else received, then heads need to roll. Attempts to silence political points of view has no place in America -- and should not be tolerated.

And yet, it's too early to tell precisely what took place.

What we do know is that the U.S. Supreme Court opened the floodgates for politically active groups and their corresponding spending with its decision in Citizens United. The number of groups classifying themselves as "social welfare" groups under section 501(c)4 of the federal tax code ballooned. The classification is critical, as it allows tax-exempt status.

And that's where the IRS entered the picture. Officials there have to ensure the social groups do not have political activity as their primary activity. If that line is crossed, the tax-exempt status disappears.

The IRS singled out about 300 groups that had applied for the status. Roughly 75 of them were tea party groups. That doesn't strike us as out of line, given the relatively recent emergence of the movement. The brouhaha has been created by the way those groups were identified. Workers in a Cincinnati office searched for names that had "tea party" or "patriot" in them. Once higher-ups learned of the practice, it was quickly stopped. None of the groups were denied their tax-exempt status, although not all of them have received a ruling yet and some have withdrawn their application.

On its face, it appears the shortcut taken to identify some of the groups was inappropriate but didn't rise to the level of harassment. We'll see if that changes as more testimony is offered at the plethora of hearings Congress is sure to hold. But before lawmakers and the public leap to conclusions, all the facts need to come forth. Assumptions made based on what we know so far might end up making us look ridiculous -- regardless of political stripe.

Editorial by Patrick Lowry

plowry@dailynews.net

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