— President Barack Obama, speaking to his Cabinet and senior staff, Jan. 21, 2009.
Probably much to his own surprise, Obama, who promised us “transparency” on his first day on the job, has given us government that is merely translucent, on its best days.
Most days, the government still seems as opaque as it ever was. We are not just talking here about the latest revelations about the National Security Agency’s secret surveillance of ordinary folks’ phone data, the CIA’s most-extensive-ever use of drone strikes overseas, the FBI’s occasional drone surveillance of American’s homeland or the Justice Department’s prosecution of whistleblowers.
No, we just learned that the government’s permanent bureaucracy even kept hidden in its own shadows key information about the recent Internal Revenue Service scandal that could have helped Obama big-time.
Specifically: Not only did the IRS target tax-exemption applications of tea party-movement and other conservative organizations for special scrutiny, but we learned this week that IRS records show that some applications from liberal groups were also targeted for special scrutiny.
This revelation no doubt brought both comfort and pain to the president and his political apparatchiks in the White House.
Comfort that at least the IRS targeting was not as partisan as the Inspector General’s report indicated. Pain because Obama’s latest polls have flip-flopped — he’s gone from a majority-approval rating to a majority-disapproval rating. And all the while, we never knew the IRS had also at least listed some liberals for targeting.
The new information was there to be seen right in the same place where the old revelations were found. It was contained in one of those IRS memos titled “Be on the Lookout” — known in the bureaucracy’s gov-speak as “BOLOs.” It was made public Monday in a report by Obama’s newly appointed IRS head, Principal Deputy Commissioner Daniel Werfel. The BOLO memo had a spreadsheet attached that listed by generic labels groups whose exemption applications should be carefully scrutinized.
Among those on the list were organizations that had in their name the word “progressive” — that’s the term favored by liberal organizations these days. The BOLO spreadsheet offered this elaboration:
“Common thread is the word ‘progressive.’ Activities appear to lean toward a new political party. Activities are partisan and appear as anti-Republican. You see references to ‘blue’ as being ‘progressive.’ “
Unclear in all this is why the Inspector General never mentioned it last spring, in revealing what seemed to be one-sided politics. Also: Did the IRS actually review the exemption applications of any of the “progressive” groups it was targeting? So far, the names of actual groups that underwent this scrutiny remain unknown — as privacy trumps transparency.
So what is all this targeting about? You’ve asked a good question. It basically is another mess that was created for our discomfort by the combined wisdom of Congress and the Supreme Court. In 2008, the court handed down a 5-4 ruling that prohibits the government from preventing corporations, associations or labor unions from making independent political expenditures. (The case involved a group called Citizens United, founded by George W. Bush’s longtime conservative political strategist, Karl Rove, which wanted to air a film critical of Hillary Rodham Clinton.)
The result was that groups were allowed to apply for tax-exempt status as long as they were not primarily involved in political work, but rather were primarily involved in social-welfare efforts.
But who was left to make this determination about what work is politics and what work is social welfare? The bureaucrats of the IRS, that’s who. In other words, this impossibly difficult task has been shunted over to the most implausibly inexpert government employees. Werfel wrote in his report this week that the IRS has arbitrarily decided that groups who do 40 percent political activity but 60 percent social-welfare activity will be eligible for tax-exempt status.
That’s why conservative and liberal (nee: progressive) activist groups are contorting themselves to be doing work that can be called “social welfare” — just so they can do the activist political work they were really created to do.
There is only one commonsense solution to get us out of this IRS mess: Allow the political expenditures by these groups — but end their tax exemptions. Let them pay to play. Just like the rest of us.
Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.