Acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller has fallen on his sword for the actions of middle management types who targeted the tea party and other conservative groups that were applying for tax-exempt status. Any misuse of the considerable power of the tax agency for political purposes rightly sets off alarms. What shouldn't be lost sight of, however, is the legitimate reason that motivated IRS staffers to engage in illegitimate practices.
What the IRS was attempting to do in its misguided way was to seek out political organizations that under the guise of being "social welfare" groups had falsely gained tax exempt status as 501(c)(4) organizations under the federal tax code. These organizations were once prohibited from engaging in political activities but in recent years the IRS has permitted them to engage in politics as long as that was not their primary activity. Whether an activity is or is not "primary" is largely subjective, and the inspector general of the Treasury Department noted the vagueness of the law in his assessment of the wrongheaded actions of the IRS employees.
These so-called "social welfare" groups have long been polluting political campaigns with partisan donations, a practice they ramped up when the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision largely swept the field clear of finance regulations. The most notorious example would be Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS right-wing superPAC. Democracy 21 and the Campaign Legal Center have challenged the eligibility of that group and three others -- Priorities USA, American Action Network and Americans Elect -- for tax-exempt status under 501(c)(4).
By allowing alleged non-partisan groups to get a toe under the tent, the IRS contributed to the overwhelming dominance of money in politics -- and when the agency tried to clear the tent, misguided employees played politics in pursuit of violators of a confusing law. These abuses can be avoided in the future if tax-exempt "social welfare" organizations are barred from engaging in any political activities. This point must be made today when Mr. Miller testifies about the IRS actions before the House Ways and Means Committee.