The IRS Scandal: A Reality Check

Former Acting Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service Steven T. Miller (Alex Wong/Getty)
Former Acting Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service Steven T. Miller (Alex Wong/Getty)

(The Root) — For the Obama administration's critics, Steven T. Miller, the ousted chief of the Internal Revenue Service, might now serve as the face of the overreaching, politically intimidating and criminal behavior of big government under this president.


That message is filtering from Republicans amid Miller's testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee Friday morning, in the first of several planned congressional hearings on the IRS's targeted scrutiny of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status.

Miller has become the fall guy in a growing scandal that has prompted an FBI investigation, a pledge by President Obama to enact reforms and accusations by conservative groups that the Obama administration used the IRS to punish political adversaries.

Several Republican lawmakers say that Miller did not tell them about the screening practices last year, despite their repeated inquires. The screening, which occurred between 2010 and 2012, singled out organizations with "tea party," "patriots" or other phrases in their names.

The IRS has acknowledged that Miller learned about the targeting in the spring of 2012. But in subsequent exchanges with Republican senators, Miller did not disclose the practice.

Any false statements would be investigated as potential crimes, Attorney General Eric Holder told lawmakers on Wednesday. "False-statement violations might have been made, given at least what I know at this point," he said.

Obama fired Miller after an inspector general's audit (pdf) released on Tuesday found that IRS employees used "inappropriate criteria" as a shortcut in evaluating political-advocacy groups that applied for a 501(c)(4) tax exemption.


For Republicans, this is the juiciest red meat. They have condemned the targeting policy as criminal. In addition, they want to determine if members of the Obama administration knew about and concealed the IRS's activities during the 2012 elections.

The inference, even if proved untrue, makes for good fodder in anti-Obama talking points that will be used to excite the conservative base for the 2014 midterm elections. As Republican strategist Todd Harris, an adviser to Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, told the Washington Post, "This will be the gift that keeps on giving. There won't be a GOP campaign in the country that doesn't use this to raise money."


Obama said on Thursday that he didn't know about the targeting until it was revealed in news reports. "Americans have a right to be angry about it, and I'm angry about it," Obama told reporters. "It should not matter what political stripe you're from. The fact of the matter is, the IRS has to operate with absolute integrity."

Setting aside the furor for a moment, here's a reality check:

* The audit blamed poor management, not partisan politics, for the "inappropriate" focus on conservative groups.


* None of the conservative organizations pulled for special review has been disqualified.

* The IRS has a long history of politically motivated tax enforcement at the orders of past presidents and the FBI.


* The IRS has reason to be skeptical. The Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United ruling cleared the way for new organizations to obtain the 501(c)(4) (pdf) tax exemption, which requires them to be "primarily engaged" in promoting social welfare. Instead, many flout the law as purely political groups.

Corey Dade, an award-winning journalist based in Washington, D.C., is a former national correspondent at NPR and political reporter at the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe and other news organizations. Follow him on Twitter.