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This Week in 'Nation' History: The Politicization of the IRS | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

This Week in 'Nation' History: The Politicization of the IRS

The recent imbroglio involving the IRS allegedly targeting conservative groups for investigation is not the first time the agency has been accused of politicizing its tax assessments—and, as it almost goes without saying, it hasn’t always been right-leaning groups who have drawn its scrutiny.

A major scandal erupted in 1951 after it was discovered that individual IRS agents were being routinely bribed into ruling in favor of certain, typically affluent, taxpayers. A Nation article in early 1952 titled “Internal Confusion in Internal Revenue,” by Norman Redlich, argued that IRS scandals “will exist as long as personal judgments determine how much money individuals and corporations shall pay to the Federal Treasury each year.” Moreover, Redlich argued, vague or lax enforcement regulations—precisely what caused a woefully understaffed IRS office in Cincinatti in 2010 to scrutinize groups with “tea party” or “patriot” in their names—lead to shoddy evaluation practices and, ultimately, to a loss of confidence in the tax collection process and in the government as a whole.

The quickest way to destroy confidence [in the tax system] is to let the public think that some persons…are “getting away with something”…

Corruption in tax-gathering can never be entirely eliminated from a tax system as extensive as ours. But it can be minimized, and certainly it should not be encouraged by inefficient organization, careless administrative practices, lax enforcement of the law, or patronage politics.

While the current scandal suggests the presence of “corruption” only in the loosest sense, the point remains. As we quoted Michael Macleod Ball, chief of staff at ACLU’s Washington legislative office, in our editorial last week: “Even the appearance of playing partisan politics with the tax code is about as constitutionally troubling as it gets.” Much of this, we argued, is due to the hazy legality surrounding campaign finance in the wake of the Citizens United decision. Sadly, it often seems this vicious circle is precisely the goal of those groups who now claim to be victimized, and who have been trying to insert billions of dollars into the electoral process and to starve government agencies like the IRS for years.

The Nixon administration aggressively used the IRS to go after its “enemies,” as Senator Frank Church’s Senate Intelligence Committee documented with devastating detail in its mid-1970s reports. Years before the Church Committee, however, the tax lawyer Joseph Ruskay wrote for The Nation, in “New Muzzle for Churchmen” from 1972, about how Nixon’s IRS “has demonstrated an unprecedented interest in the civil rights, anti-poverty and anti-war activities of certain religious organizations.” In 1976, an article titled “The IRS Bullies the New South,” by Jason Berry—who wrote most recently for the magazine about Pope John Paul II’s legacy, in 2011—reported that the agency was routinely using its investigative powers to target leaders of the civil rights movement so as to “offset the gains” made in the previous twenty years. “In Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama, the IRS functions, in effect, as an arm of political systems which are trying by economic means to keep blacks out of power,” Berry wrote. As in the early 1950s and as today, those local agents were permitted to unfairly target civil rights leaders because of “the structure of the IRS nationally and the perversion of its legitimate powers by regional agents.” After Citizens United, the rules governing the tax status so-called social welfare groups are “very much in flux,” as we argued in last week’s editorial: “It is absurd—and wrong—to expect IRS auditors to sort the mess out.” But so long as the federal regulations regarding money in politics remain unclear—to the benefit of those with much of it—that absurdity will doubtlessly continue.

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