Did Citizens United Critics Push the IRS to Misbehave?

Last Friday, a spokeswoman for the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) admitted the agency had targeted various Tea Party and related groups during the 2010 election cycle. Later in the week, an Inspector General’s report will offer an initial look at the facts of this matter. At least two congressional committees also plan investigations. 

Many people recall that the Nixon administration used the IRS to harass political opponents. Surely the IG’s report and subsequent investigations will show whether the IRS has gotten back into the business of protecting an incumbent administration from its critics. 

It is not too soon, however, to recall the the campaign finance reform lobby has been calling for a crackdown on political groups since the Citizens United decision. One possibility would be that the IRS gave in pressure from the reform lobby and went after the Tea Party groups. 

Was there an intention to chill speech? The timing provokes doubts: the targeting began in the spring of 2010 just as the mid-term campaign season started and ended after the election when the harassment no longer has any rationale. The long delays of approving tax status certainly slowed down the wave coming toward Congress in 2010. 66 House members lost their seats in that election. Do any sitting members owe their offices to the IRS? 

Even now, leading reform groups are calling for renewed crackdown on these groups. We are also told by more sober reformers that this whole matter shows the need for more disclosure and greater clarity in the rules. But the major argument against such disclosure has been that government officials will use the information to punish political opponents. Given what we know about this case, does it make sense to give the IRS more information about, and more power over groups that oppose the administration? 

Some will note the irony here. Most of campaign finance law was enacted in 1974 just after the end of the Watergate scandal. The campaign finance reform lobby dates its life to that scandal which, as noted, included using the IRS for political ends. Now the reformers are defending the IRS and its apparent political harassment. Things do seem to have come full circle.