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May 20, 2013 12:23 PM Do We Actually Care About Fixing the 501(c)(4) Mess?

By Ed Kilgore

In all the furor over who did what when in the botched IRS scrutiny of applications for 501(c)(4) status, which confers very limited benefits on political activity absolutely no one is trying to ban or “chill” or “intimidate,” what keeps getting lost is the question of how to fix the situation. Ezra Klein succinctly summed up the options—other than perpetuating the mess forever—this morning:

We don’t want IRS agents deciding who is and who is not a primarily political group. That is not their core competency. Worse, it necessarily involves the IRS in politics, and the IRS is an agency we want kept far from politics. We either need extremely bright lines that govern the IRS’s judgments on these groups and removes the need for significant discretion or, as tax professor John Colombo argues, we should consider getting rid of the 501(c)(4) designation altogether.

I continue to think the Obama administration and its congressional allies should take the lead in proposing one or the other option, which would also involve public scrutiny of the Big Berthas among 501(c)(4) organizations that the IRS left alone to pour many tens of millions into blatantly partisan campaign ads. There is no constitutional or moral right to a federal tax exemption for political organizations (where is that in the Founding Documents, O Ye Clear Meaning of the Constitution Tea Folk?) If Congress wants to extend a statutory right to such status (as it has done in the past), it needs to justify it and clarify its application so that no IRS official, in Washington or Cincinnati or anywhere else, is exercising any significant discretion. Additional measures to completely insulate the IRS from politics would be welcome as well. But it’s ridiculous to accuse IRS personnel of some sort of political conspiracy when the rules under which they are operating are so exceptionally vague, leaving them to pursue their only real mission, which is to minimize revenue loss. And if Republicans intend to pursue this “scandal” in perpetuity, each and every one of them should be challenged incessantly to tell us how they’d fix the problem. If they don’t think there’s a problem that can’t be solved by Republicans taking over the IRS and “enforcing” the same incoherent rules, then they should tell us that as well. But in truth, there is no “solution” without clarifying the rules.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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