by Clarence Page
Republicans are not alone in their outrage that the IRS singled out tea party groups for extra scrutiny on their applications for nonprofit status. Nobody likes to be profiled.
The IRS folks should have known better. "You've got to spread the scrutiny around a little," as comedian Amy Poehler advised on "Saturday Night Live." "Even the TSA pulls a white guy out of the security line every once in a while. Y'know, just to make it look good." Right. At least try to make it look fair.
It's ironic to see the tables turned on conservatives, who tend to defend aggressive profiling, a legal form of prejudice, as a tool for pursuing terrorists and other criminals.
I'm on their side in this IRS case. I question any overreliance on superficial characteristics like race, religion or party affiliation in deciding whom to target for extra scrutiny.
At the same time, having a name and mission that are associated with cutting taxes and government spending is probably no less eye-catching at IRS than vanity license plates that announce, "I SPEED."
That's what happened at the Cincinnati regional IRS office, according to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration's report. In 2009, after the rise of the tea party movement, the IRS office began to use "inappropriate criteria" that led to "significant delays" in some requests for 501(c)(4) status as nonprofit "social welfare" organizations. The designation allows groups to receive tax advantages while participating directly in elections, provided they focused mostly on "social welfare" and not candidate advocacy.
The "inappropriate criteria" included searches for such politically loaded keywords as "tea party," "patriots," "take back the country" and "9/12" (associated with Glenn Beck's 9/12 Project). That process led to a disproportionate number of conservative groups having their applications held up for extra scrutiny that lasted more than a year, the report said.
As if that unfairness wasn't bad enough, it also didn't work. The IG found that of the 298 groups that the IRS selected for further review over the past two years, 91 should not have been selected and an estimated 185 additional cases should have been.
In other words, the IRS wound up investigating a lot of applicants it should not have been investigating while approving others who should have been further scrutinized.
"If you wanted to make a case against profiling," as Slate technology columnist Farhad Manjoo observed, "you couldn't pick a better example than what happened here."
But the big question occupying Capitol Hill is, who is to blame? House Speaker John Boehner's remarks on the scandal this past week reveal a familiar Republican reflex: BOF -- Blame (President Barack) Obama First -- even as they're groping to find evidence that the president had anything to do with it.
"It's pretty inconceivable to me that the president wouldn't know," the Boehner said in an interview on Fox News Channel Wednesday. He was reacting to Obama's claim a week earlier that he did not know anything about the inspector general's report on the scandal before it was released earlier this month.
Boehner acknowledged that the president's White House aides might have deliberately withheld the information from him, but again he said that was "inconceivable."
IRS officials didn't help much with their stonewalling and convenient claims of ignorance or amnesia before a House investigative committee. And White House officials didn't help matters much by changing their own stories about who in the White House knew what and when.
Yet by the end of the week there still was no evidence that President Obama knew about it any earlier than he said he did. Since the Watergate scandal, when President Richard Nixon directed the IRS to audit his designated "enemies" from the Oval Office, presidents have been extra cautious about steering clear of the agency, which is an independent arm of the Treasury Department.
That's how it should be. The Justice Department is investigating, and so are several congressional committees. Speaker Boehner said he saw no need for a special prosecutor. I think he and his fellow Republicans would rather talk and talk about this IRS mess as long as they can -- like what didn't the president know and when didn't he know it.