Render Unto Caesar

I’ve been watching with great interest the unfolding controversy over whether the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) singled out “tea party” groups for special scrutiny.  It’s good to see Attorney General Eric Holder take this issue seriously enough to open an investigation although such an investigation need not be limited to these narrow circumstances.

While anyone might have serious philosophical differences with any number of groups, corporations and organizations on the political spectrum, the place to resolve those differences is in legislatures, courts, executive branch agencies and the public square.  Let all bring ideas and plans for what they think will lead to a better society and let’s debate them freely and openly without fear of intimidation.

Although the IRS should be among the most apolitical of agencies, accusations of its mission being subverted to serve political ends exist in recent memory going back to Richard Nixon’s “enemies” list.

This isn’t the first time accusations of politics at the IRS.  It’s just the first time the media has picked up on it in a big way, mostly via the screaming of Republican politicos.  There’s compelling (if inconclusive) evidence that the IRS was sent after Greenpeace by political enemies.  In 2003, a mysterious group called Public Interest Watch publicly called on the IRS to investigate the finances of Greenpeace US, implying money laundering.  In 2005, the IRS audited Greenpeace.  The day the IRS auditor arrived, he pointed at a photo of a non-violent direct action and said, “You guys are engaged in illegal activity and this stuff has got to stop.”  Chilling words, indeed.

Greenpeace passed that audit with good grades and a recent follow-up IRS audit as well.  That doesn’t prove Public Interest Watch goaded the IRS into auditing Greenpeace’s books.  In 2006, the Wall Street Journal reported Public Interest Watch received $120,000 of its $124,000 budget from ExxonMobil, the multinational entity Greenpeace has clashed with for years over its drilling, spilling and denial of climate change. Mystery solved.  (You can find the WSJ story here, but as a subscription is required, you can also see the same information on Grist.)

For the record, the IRS has never commented – and until now has had a policy of not commenting – on reasons it selects groups for auditing.  If a small group of people angry at Greenpeace call for an IRS audit, it’s one thing; if the richest corporation on Earth, with massive lobbying and influence with all branches of the federal government are behind that small group, it’s another.

Still, perhaps this was just a coincidence.  Perhaps not.  Consider the context in which this occurred.  In 2004, then chair of the House Ways and Means Committee Rep. Bill Thomas (R-CA) subpoenaed 10 years of records from Rainforest Action Network (RAN).  In a letter to RAN, Rep. Thomas wrote, “The Subcommittee has received reports of tax-preferred organizations that may be operating beyond the scope of their charitable status.”  As was the case with Greenpeace, hard scrutiny by the government revealed RAN was acting with propriety.

The same year, the IRS threatened the tax-exempt status of the NAACP because then-Chair Julian Bond expressed anger than President George W. Bush broke with tradition and refused to address the organization’s convention.  Any whiff of politics there?  Yep.  Any Republican senators have a cat over that?  Nope.

Let’s take a hard look at what the IRS did – or failed to do – not only in recent months, but as far back as we can look.  Let’s look not only at what the government – in all its capacity – has done to suppress voices, not just of the tea party, but of any group on any side of an issue.  Let’s work together to get our government on the track where it belongs – and then let’s return to our great debate.

© Mark Floegel 2013

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