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IRS overreach

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The Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative-oriented tax-exempt groups over a two-year period calls for further inquiry into the tax-enforcement agency’s misuse of its power.

On Friday, Lois Lerner, who heads the IRS tax-exempt organizations division, apologized for “absolutely inappropriate” actions of lower-level agents, who relied on politically sensitive buzzwords to single out some organizations for closer scrutiny in their applications for tax-exempt status as far back as 2010. The workers flagged groups with terms such “Tea Party” or “patriots” in their names to determine whether they were engaging in political activities beyond what is permitted of charitable organizations.

Such groups are allowed to engage in lobbying and advocating for issues, but their primary focus has to be promoting social welfare.

The groups were asked to submit more detailed information, including their list of donors, membership lists and contact organizations. The inquiries had the effect of slowing down approval of a group’s tax-exempt status, which can affect donations.

Although none of the 300 organizations had their tax-exempt status revoked, some of them withdrew their applications. Nonetheless, the practice can have a chilling effect on speech and political advocacy. Jay Sekulow, lead lawyer for the conservative American Center for Law and Justice, accused the IRS of McCarthyism.

However, since the initial disclosure Friday, new details have emerged on a pending report by the IRS inspector general that indicate an even broader reach. The unidentified agents in a Cincinnati office widened the search criteria, the Associated Press reported, to include “political action type organizations involved in limiting/expanding government, education on the Constitution and Bill of Rights, social economic reform/ movement.”

Ms. Lerner denied any partisan motives, saying the agents made mistakes of judgments in “shortcuts” allowing them to deal with an influx of applications for tax-exempt status. Media reports have focused on conservative groups that came under scrutiny; it’s not known how many or what liberal organizations might have been subjected to the same degree of questioning.

Ms. Lerner did not say when she informed higher-level IRS officials of the abusive practice. She became aware of it at least by mid-2011. That was several months before then-IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman told a congressional panel that “there’s absolutely no targeting” of tax-exempt groups after conservative organizations sounded the alarm about IRS harassment in 2010.

Ms. Lerner declined to say whether anyone had been disciplined. It is also unclear who drafted the original criteria or made the decision to seek the detailed data.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has called for “a transparent, governmentwide review aimed at assuring the American people that these thuggish practices are not underway at the IRS or elsewhere in the administration against anyone, regardless of their political views.”

Democrats such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein also raised concerns about the “extra scrutiny.” In the House, Rep. Dave Camp, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, said it will hold hearings as well.

Neither political party should tolerate this bureaucratic behavior. Americans expect government agents to be independent of politics. There is no excuse for the leadership of the IRS to have kept this abuse secret for nearly two years.

The IRS scrutiny was just plain wrong, and Democrats and Republicans alike must join together to use their congressional power to publicly identify the time line and participants and to recommend sanctions.

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