Editorial: Sloppiness at the IRS — Underpaid, overworked employees may be at center of controversy
by The Anniston Star Editorial Board
May 20, 2013 | 3363 views |  0 comments | 13 13 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The controversy over the IRS applying extra scrutiny to Tea Party groups seeking nonprofit status is a teachable moment.

What precisely should be taught is a matter of perspective.

Tea Party members, already concerned about what they see as Big Brother government, are saying their fears are justified by the news that the IRS targeted them and other conservatives.

Republicans are doing their best to tie the scandal to President Barack Obama, suggesting that a president they frequently deride as incompetent has suddenly been revealed as an uber-competent Nixonian schemer who is pulling all the strings.

Conservatives are making it an opportunity to bash a favorite target, the Internal Revenue Service.

Members of Congress at a hearing on the matter late last week did what they do best — striking a disingenuous posture of outrage. They are shocked — shocked, mind you! — that the IRS would stoop to such a tactic and in response must play to the TV cameras.

Such is the state of our politics, and in this case things are likely to get worse before they get better.

The journalists at ProPublica.org, a nonprofit news organization, recently revealed a picture of dysfunction at the IRS that might be corrected if our politicians can find the time.

Relying on information from former IRS officials and tax experts, the article reports that the IRS division involved in the Tea Party brouhaha, the Exempt Organizations division, “has long been an agency afterthought, beset by mismanagement, financial constraints and an unwillingness to spell out just what it expects from social welfare nonprofits.”

ProPublica goes on to set up how government streamlining set in motion 15 years ago is a major contributor in how one ideology was singled out for close inspection. In the name of greater efficiency, “Checks and balances once in place were taken away. Guidance frequently published by the IRS and closely read by tax lawyers and nonprofits disappeared. Even as political activity by social welfare nonprofits exploded in recent election cycles, repeated requests for the IRS to clarify exactly what was permitted for the secretly funded groups were met, at least publicly, with silence.”

Then the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision case gave incentives for political groups to file as nonprofits. The workload suddenly went up as applications increased.

With 200 staffers expected to check on 60,000 or more applications for nonprofit status a year, the Exempt Organizations office in Cincinnati cut corners. “It’s really no surprise that a number of these cases blew up on the IRS,” a former Exempt Organizations supervisor told ProPublica. “They had eliminated the trip wires of 25 years.”

Sloppiness and corner-cutting might be the best explanation at this stage. Thus far, no investigation has yielded evidence of partisanship or a political order from higher up in the government. Republicans in Congress vow to look closer to see if political motivations are at the heart of the policy at the Cincinnati office.

Perhaps Congress and the president should examine the conditions that led to the most recent incident and seek out solutions to fix it. As former IRS attorney Bryan Camp told ProPublica, “The story people are overlooking is: Congress is complaining about underpaid, overworked employees who are not adequately trained.”
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