The targeting by the United States Internal Revenue Service of groups associated with the tea party movement is deeply disturbing and represents a possible abuse of power. President Barack Obama has rightly called the harassment "outrageous," but now questions are being raised about how long ago White House and IRS officials knew something was going on. All these allegations need to be fully investigated.
The IRS has already apologized for bringing additional scrutiny to bear on applications for tax-exempt status from groups that had the words "tea party" or "patriot" in their names. One woman has told ABC News that, when she tried to start a tea party group in suburban Philadelphia, the demand for documentation from the IRS was so onerous she eventually abandoned the project.
The IRS has admitted to treating at least 75 similar applications for tax-exempt status with the same overzealousness in 2012 alone, but now evidence is mounting that the practice may have been going on since 2010. That is the year the right-wing, anti-government tea party movement reached its peak, sending several of its candidates to Congress in midterm elections and influencing the platform of the Republican Party.
Significantly, however, that is also the year of the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, a freedom-of-speech ruling that prohibits the government from restricting the political spending of corporations, associations and unions. Ever since that ruling, the IRS has reportedly been flooded with new requests from groups seeking tax-exempt status. The agency has been struggling to determine which of the groups are eligible – and which are not by dint of being primarily political organizations. The U.S. tax code prohibits non-profit groups – which can be funded by anonymous donors – from endorsing, or campaigning for, candidates in an election.
The controversy is also coloured by the fact that the IRS has targeted liberal organizations in the past, most notably a California church whose pastor gave an anti-war sermon just prior to the 2004 general election. And it may yet come to light that, in this current round of scrutiny, left-leaning groups were subjected to the same rigorous questioning.
In that light, allegations of abuse of power would be overblown. But the bottom line is that the IRS cannot single out one political affiliation, or use a highly charged set of search terms such as "tea party" to weed out unsuitable applicants. President Obama is right when he says the IRS should be fully accountable and completely non-partisan. He now has to see to it that this is actually the case.