Taxing the tea party

Loyal readers of this page are likely aware that we have not been great supporters of the tea party movement. Too often, we have found those anti-tax crusaders who call themselves tea party patriots are simply rebranded John Birch Society members of an earlier time with all the extremist anti-civil rights, anti-immigration, and anti-United Nations rhetoric that comes with it.

But the latest disclosure — gleaned from a draft inspector general's report delivered to Congress last week — that tea party groups and others espousing similar ideas had been targeted by some within the U.S. Internal Revenue Service for special scrutiny is outrageous. For the IRS to single out an organization based on its ideological leanings is truly appalling and simply anti-American.

This is the kind of thing that we thought went out with Richard Nixon, Watergate and his infamous enemies list. And it's troubling to learn that top officials at the IRS were made aware of this practice more than two years ago yet were officially denying that conservative groups were being targeted a year later.

Let's make this as clear as possible. The American people expect the IRS to do its job without exercising any political favoritism whatsoever. Agents are expected to call the balls and strikes as the tax code describes them and not apply some political litmus test by noting whether the groups they're vetting have the names "tea party" or "patriot" in their title.

Today, it might be the tea party given extra hurdles by the tax man, but tomorrow it could be anyone, liberal or conservative, religious or atheist, rich or poor. It now appears that leaders of tea party groups, who have complained for years about the agency's reluctance to grant them tax-exempt status, may have been absolutely correct all along.

Employees of the IRS should have known better — and likely the vast majority do. The credibility of the tax collection process relies on IRS agents being the bureaucratic equivalent of Caesar's wife, completely above suspicion. That these were allegedly the actions of only lower-level IRS employees in the Cincinnati office is a comfort but not an excuse.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, said recently that President Barack Obama should publicly condemn the actions of the IRS as they contribute to a profound distrust of government by the American people. We agree wholeheartedly.

While the episode may have only involved a handful of IRS workers, as the White House has previously noted, there's an important broader principle at stake. In these politically polarized times, Democrats and Republicans alike ought to agree that there's a line that must never be crossed, a point where democracy itself is undermined by preferential treatment.

Indeed, that lesson should extend beyond tax collection. It is not difficult to find Americans who believe that all government at the federal, state and local level routinely conducts its business this way — unfairly punishing individuals for whatever political, social or economic reason, or perhaps just to flaunt its power. In a time of high unemployment and economic dissatisfaction, there's a natural distrust of those in the public sector who seem shielded from misfortune.

That's an unfair way to characterize government, of course, but such sweeping generalities seem far less absurd when one uncovers an episode like this one. How ironic that tea party groups, which tend to share this profound distrust of government at all levels, have now been proved, at least to a limited degree, correct.

Conservatives may be the ones most outraged by this, but all Americans should share in their ire. If Rep. Darrell Issa wants to put the IRS high on the list of agencies to be scrutinized by his government oversight committee, well, that's fine by us. It would be good to know what exactly was in the minds of the perpetrators of this policy.

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