Republicans are not alone in their outrage that the Internal Revenue Service singled out tea party groups for extra scrutiny to their applications for nonprofit tax status. Nobody likes to be profiled.
The IRS folks should have known better. "You've got to spread the scrutiny around a little," as comedian Amy Poehler advised on "Saturday Night Live." "Even the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) pulls a white guy out of the security line every once in a while. Ya know, just to make it look good." Right. At least try to make it look fair.
It's ironic to see the tables turned on conservatives who tend to defend aggressive profiling, a legal form of prejudice, as a tool for pursuing terrorists and other criminals.
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I'm on their side in this IRS kerfuffle. I question any over-reliance on superficial characteristics like race, religion or party affiliation in deciding whom to target for extra scrutiny.
At the same time, having a name and a mission associated with cutting taxes and government spending is probably no less eye-catching at the IRS than vanity license plates that announce, "I SPEED."
That's what happened at the Cincinnati regional IRS office, according to the Treasury inspector general for tax administration's report. In 2009, after the rise of the tea party movement, the Cincinnati IRS office began to use "inappropriate criteria" that led to "significant delays" in some requests for 501(c)(4) status as nonprofit "social welfare" organizations. The designation allows groups to receive tax advantages while participating directly in political elections, provided they focused mostly on "social welfare" and not candidate advocacy.
The "inappropriate criteria" included searches for such politically loaded keywords as "tea party," "patriots," "take back the country" and "9/12" (associated with Glenn Beck's 912 Project). That process led to a disproportionate number of conservative groups having their nonprofit applications held up for extra scrutiny that lasted more than a year, the report said.
As if that wasn't bad enough in its unfairness to conservatives, it also didn't work. The inspector general found that of the 298 groups that the IRS selected for further review over the past two years, 91 should not have been selected for review and an estimated 185 additional cases should have been selected.
In other words, the IRS wound up investigating a lot of applicants it should not have been investigating while approving others who should have been stopped for further investigation.
"If you wanted to make a case against profiling," as Slate technology columnist Farhad Manjoo points out, "you couldn't pick a better example than what happened here."
But the big question occupying Capitol Hill is, who is to blame? House Speaker John Boehner's remarks on the scandal this past week reveal a familiar Republican reflex: BOF — Blame (President Barack) Obama First — even as they're groping to find evidence that Obama had anything to do with the IRS scandal.
"It's pretty inconceivable to me that the president wouldn't know," the Ohio Republican said in a TV interview on Fox News Wednesday. He was reacting to Obama's claim a week earlier that he did not know anything about the inspector general's report on the scandal before it was revealed earlier this month.
Boehner acknowledged that White House aides might have deliberately withheld the information from the president, but again Boehner said that was "inconceivable."
IRS officials didn't help much with their stonewalling and convenient claims of ignorance or amnesia before a House investigative committee. And White House officials didn't help matters much by changing their own stories about who in the White House knew what and when.
Yet by the end of the week there still was no evidence that Obama knew about it any earlier than he said he did. Since the Watergate scandal, when President Richard Nixon directed the IRS to audit his designated "enemies," presidents have been extra cautious about steering clear of the agency, which is an independent arm of the Treasury Department.
That's how it should be. The Justice Department is investigating and so are several congressional committees. Speaker Boehner said he saw no need for a special prosecutor. I think he and his fellow Republicans would rather talk and talk and talk about what didn't the president know and when didn't he know it.
Clarence Page, a member of the Tribune's editorial board, blogs at chicagotribune.com/pagespage.