Carol Shea-Porter: IRS Malfeasance Proves We Should Punch the First Amendment In the Face Some More

Free Speech zone It's time once again to look at one of "Carol's Columns", the latest in a series of pieces from my own CongressCritter and perpetual toothache, Carol Shea-Porter (D-NH01).

Carol's topic is one that's been in the news lately: the IRS politically slanting its investigations to target groups insufficiently supportive of progressive ideology. Carol, as it turns out, thinks that was a bad thing for the IRS to do. Yay!

And (good news) this column is only about 68.3% claptrap, instead of the usual 90+%. But still, let us look at it in detail.

Carol's current column is titled "Reform? Don’t Stop at the IRS"; it appears at her government-provided website and residents of NH01 may see it at some point as an op-ed in their local papers. I am reproducing her entire column here, lest I be accused of quoting out of context. Carol's words are (appropriately) on the left with a lovely #EEFFFF background color; my comments are on the right.

I flew down to Washington, DC this week with an extra measure of concern about the news. We have truly been divided by policy and politics in Congress and across the nation. We have some very serious policy issues that divide us, and then there is just political posturing as well, done with an eye towards gaining the upper hand for the next election. But now there is a legitimate issue that worries and offends all of us on both sides of the aisle. Revelations that the Internal Revenue Service used phrases like "Tea Party" or "Patriot" as flags to more closely investigate conservative groups who applied for 501(c)4 status are deeply disturbing and violate our sense of fairness. This problem should concern and unite Republicans and Democrats in Washington, because something like this can shake citizens' faith in government institutions and undermine confidence that there is fair and equal treatment for all. We must not single out any one group over others for special treatment. Period. OK, so Carol's pissed. Fine; only the most devoted IRS sycophants are claiming not to be. But what's interesting is the reason behind her worries.

Carol has a deep, unshakeable, essentially religious belief in All Things Government. As we've seen, there's not a single dollar in private hands that she doesn't imagine the state could spend more wisely and humanely.

So the IRS's real sin was not that they were abusive toward a bunch of Americans they decided to target.

No the real problem, according to Carol: the IRS might have shaken "citizens' faith in government institutions"! It might "undermine" their "confidence" in the Holy State! Horrors!

And you thought I was kidding about Carol's religious belief in Government? Nope: her overriding concern is that the IRS's actions might be increasing the number of infidels!

The Internal Revenue Service is an independent organization, with only two political appointments in the whole organization. It is required to be politically neutral. It cannot treat the Tea Party, which is conservative, or Move On, which is liberal, any differently from other organizations when it is trying to determine tax-exempt status. Sadly though, it did focus more intently on the conservative groups that applied for tax-exempt status. Was it done just as a "shortcut" as an IRS official explained, or was it politically motivated? No matter what the excuse is, there is no acceptable excuse. Noting that the IRS is "independent" is a dodge to defuse speculation that its political litmus tests might have been ordered from the White House. Kimberly Strassel debunked this feint and outlined the real issue a few days back at the WSJ: "Mr. Obama didn't need to pick up the phone. All he needed to do was exactly what he did do, in full view, for three years: Publicly suggest that conservative political groups were engaged in nefarious deeds; publicly call out by name political opponents whom he'd like to see harassed; and publicly have his party pressure the IRS to take action."
This is the message that Republicans and Democrats need to blast out, and this is the moment to stand together to demand tough enforcement of our laws. The Justice Department has announced that there will be a formal inquiry. We need to know how, why, and who, and then make sure it can't happen again. I hope that a transparent and thorough investigation will restore peoples' confidence. I also believe that Republicans and Democrats should speak out against the targeting, but they need to be very cautious about generalizing. Victor Fleischer wrote in the New York Times that "The root of the problem is poor institutional design, not a political conspiracy." So far, it seems that way, but they did do wrong, and we need a thorough investigation. In the meantime, politicians should express appropriate outrage, since this is so clearly unfair and wrong, but be careful not to tag the innocent. You can read the Fleischer blog post Carol refers to here. It handwaves a semi-plausible yarn that the poor IRS was just way too swamped and frustrated by vague and sloppy law.

But: "poor institutional design" might explain inconsistent and arbitrary IRS rulings. It does not explain its admitted political bias. Fleischer's theory is a poor fit to the revealed facts.

It is important to look at the 501(c)4 status that allows an organization to be tax-exempt, to see if there is another problem here. What is it, and why is the Internal Revenue Service trying to decide which organizations qualify? To obtain a 501(c)4 status, a group must be "operated exclusively for the promotion of social welfare." They should not be political. However, Karl Rove made them popular by using them to collect political donations under the pretext of a social welfare organization. The reason Rove and so many other groups, both liberal and conservative, love them is because they are tax-exempt and they do not have to reveal their donors. In other words, this status is being used and/or abused by all kinds of groups who want to get involved in politics, run the political ads we enjoy so much on television, and never have to say who paid for them. Ezra Klein from the Washington Post wrote that "According to data collected by OpenSecrets.org, 501(c)4s spent $92 million in the 2010 election. They spent $254 million in the 2012 election. That's a lot of social welfare going to the good people who live in swing states and competitive districts." Carol finds it self-evident that a "social welfare" group can't be "political". Obviously, the IRS defines things differently. The Fleischer op-ed (cited above) makes that point, which Carol ignores: the law is way too vague. So fix the law.

Or (my preference) drop the nonsense altogether, and repeal the law that denies non-profit organizations their full First Amendment free-speech liberties.

I was kind of surprised to learn that it's only been around since 1954 and was the brainchild of one Lyndon Baines Johnson, who was reportedly upset with some uppity Texas preachers that were daring to tell their flocks to vote against him.)

So that brought us inevitably to the odious situation today: IRS bureaucrats reading sermons to see if some unacceptable "line was crossed" in the pulpit. And asking secular groups equally snoopy questions.

So, as Congress and the Justice Department investigate the IRS and the way they handled the granting of the 501(c)4 status, I hope the American people will investigate the actual status and demand change. We need to stop granting this status to groups that are not really engaged in "social welfare," and apply a cold eye to all groups who apply for that status. While these organizations can engage in some political advocacy, they are supposed to actually promote the social welfare. Does anybody believe that Karl Rove's group or the Democrats' group put together their 501(c)4 for any other reason than to win elections and keep donors' names private? I don't. Neither should you. Let's fix this problem and demand a little campaign finance reform while we're doing IRS reform. Carol turns things around to one of her longtime hobbyhorses: "campaign finance reform". Which, to her, means: let's figure out ways to discourage private people from voluntarily organizing to promote political goals.

Although Carol inveighs against the evil of 501(c)4's, and alludes vaguely that they reside on both sides of the political divide, I wish she'd have the guts to call out (say) Organizing For Action, a 501(c)4 spawned from the Obama campaign.

Or the unwieldly-named New Hampshire Citizens Alliance for Action (the lefties really like "Action", I guess). Carol was so put off by this nefarious 501(c)4 that she let them host one of her tame town halls last month.


Last Modified 2013-06-19 9:42 AM EDT

The End Is Near and It's Going to Be Awesome

[Amazon Link]

Kevin D. Williamson has become one of my favorite writers on matters political and economic over the past few years. His new book was a must-buy.

The long title has an even longer subtitle: How Going Broke Will Leave America Richer, Happier, and More Secure . It's kind of odd that Mr. Williamson doesn't really do a lot to develop the thesis promised in the title. What he does do (and very well) is compare goods and services produced via market mechanisms to those produced by politics.

For example: in the 1987 movie Wall Street, one of the status symbols owned by Michael Douglas's sleazy Gordon Gekko character was a Motorola DynaTAC cell phone, costing about $10K up front, $1K a month, weighed nearly two pounds, all for 30 minutes of talk time. And, Williamson points out, "you couldn't play Angry Birds on it." Today, … well, you know what happened to cell phones.

In contrast, we have goods and services produced or controlled largely, if not completely, by politics: examples include the public school system; entitlement programs typified by Social Security; health care; the legal system; the Department of Homeland Security. Quality is poor. They aren't subject to market pressures, so they are stultified and static. And the only reason we put up with them is their support via government's monopoly on coercive power.

For the "end is near" argument, Williamson puts forth the numbers that anyone who's been paying attention will know about: government at all levels has promised far more than it can deliver; unfunded liabilities will soon outstrip whatever government is likely to collect in taxes. At that point, Williamson notes, it will be "faced with a choice of which howling mob it wants to face: recipients of Social Security and Medicare benefits, or the world bond market."

Williamson's conclusion: "Don't bet on grandma."

The meat of the book involves demonstrating that less coercive methods for providing things "traditionally" produced by government would be both feasible and superior. If you've read Reason magazine for a few dozen years, like I have, there won't be a lot new or surprising here. But Williamson is a fine writer, and you'll find those familiar themes explained well.

So it's possible and desirable that the market take over some traditionally state-provided goods and services, Williamson's title seems to hint that such an outcome is likely. Nay: a virtual certainty. But (as near as I can tell) he doesn't make that bit of argument at all. I think I would have noticed if he had, but maybe I missed it. So while Williamson might be "long-term" optimistic about the prospects for liberty and prosperity, I wasn't convinced. This is, after all, a country that elected B. Obama twice.

Williamson's arguments and examples are very libertarian; unfortunately, he rarely uses that word, and when he does, it's dismissive. A puzzling decision, perhaps to avoid being pigeonholed into a movement that the mainstream has written off as kooky. But don't be fooled: this is the real deal.

One of my other favorite writers, Jonah Goldberg, reviews the book here.


Last Modified 2013-06-19 9:42 AM EDT