The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) may be the most powerful, and feared, federal agency in Washington. It is absolutely essential that it always remain above politics, yet we discovered recently that the IRS is failing in this mission. I am appalled by the abuses of power at the IRS that have been recently brought to light. It is absolutely chilling that the IRS has admitted that it deliberately targeted conservative groups based on their apparent political ideology. The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, an IRS watchdog, has released a damning report about the agency’s actions, and the Department of Justice has announced that it will begin a criminal probe into the IRS’s actions. And, officials, including the Acting IRS Commissioner, have resigned.
This scandal started when the IRS’s Exempt Organizations division identified for heightened scrutiny a large number of organizations applying for tax-exempt status based upon their names or policy positions. Groups were selected for extra review if they had words like “Tea Party,” “Patriots,” or “9/12” in their names, if they criticized how the country was being run or whose stated purpose was to address government spending, government debt, taxes, or making America a better place to live. These inappropriate criteria stayed in place for more than 18 months, and resulted in substantial delays in processing the groups’ applications. In some cases, applications remained outstanding for more than two years.
It is deeply troubling that the IRS also sought to compel some of the targeted groups to divulge their membership lists. IRS officials have admitted – and the TIGTA report has confirmed – that there was absolutely no reason for the IRS to have sought this type of information, and that it was not appropriate for the IRS to have done so. Indeed, the types of entities that were subject to heightened scrutiny are not prohibited from engaging in political advocacy. Thus, the fact that the IRS chose to press these organizations for their membership lists suggests an effort to chill the constitutional rights of speech and association by groups that hold conservative views and that were seeking tax-exempt status. This is reminiscent of the type of state action struck down in 1958 by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Some believe that the abuses that are now making headlines appear to be part of a larger pattern of questionable activity by the Administration that seems intended to hinder or chill the expression of views critical of the President’s policies. Two years ago, for example, the IRS sent letters to donors of conservative tax-exempt organizations informing them that the IRS was investigating why they had failed to file gift tax returns reflecting their donations. Similarly, in 2011 the Administration proposed an executive order requiring federal agencies to collect information about the campaign contributions and other political expenditures of any business seeking to sell goods or services to the federal government. In response to widespread opposition, the Administration ultimately did not issue the executive order.
Irrespective of whether those singled out were liberal or conservative, Republican or Democratic, the targeting of private citizens for exercising their First Amendment rights is unacceptable and cannot be tolerated. It has been said that the power to tax is the power to destroy. The American people cannot and will not tolerate the abuse of that power to erode their most fundamental rights. It is imperative that the White House, the Treasury Department, and the IRS act decisively to put an immediate end to such abuse, ensure appropriate policies are in place to prevent future such abuses, and give a full accounting to the American people of how such an abuse of power was allowed to occur.
It is a good start that the Acting IRS Commissioner has tendered his resignation, but many questions remain. How was a culture that believed such inappropriate actions were acceptable allowed to develop at the IRS? Why was targeting allowed to continue for an extended period of time? Why did the IRS deceive Congress about these actions?
I have personally condemned the IRS’s actions, and have written to both the White House and the Treasury Secretary to press for a full accounting of the facts. The IRS describes its mission as requiring it to apply the tax law “with integrity and fairness to all.” To achieve that goal, it is absolutely critical that the administration of the tax laws be based on sound policy, rather than partisan politics. That is why we must discover how and why the IRS chose to target groups for their apparent political ideology, and put in place safeguards to ensure that it will never happen again.
Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) is Maine’s Senior Senator.