Good news for the employees of the Internal Revenue Service. John Koskinen, the tax agency's new director, will spread the wealth to his staff in bonuses for a job he considers well done, even if almost nobody else does. Evidence abounds that suppression of the Obama administration's political enemies is part of that job.
A House Ways and Means Committee investigation identified the precise date the Tax Man began harassing the Tea Party. Prior to February 2010, conservative groups could file for nonprofit status and receive an approval letter in about three months, a brisk pace of action for the bureaucracy.
Things changed when lower-level employees decided to alert higher-ups when conservative applications were about to be approved. "Please let 'Washington' know about this potentially politically embarrassing case involving a 'Tea Party' organization," an IRS manager wrote in a February 2010 email. "Recent media attention to this type of organization indicates to me that this is a 'high-profile' case."
The IRS manager wasn't seeking clarification about how the well-established law should be applied. She sent it up the chain of command for political reasons.
At this point, approvals for conservative groups came to a halt. "Washington" not only knew about it, but intended to make the moratorium permanent, by quietly writing a permanent regulation to change the definition of "political activities" for 501(c)(4) organizations. Another group of emails in 2012 said this rule change should be made "off-plan" — that is, without publishing an official schedule.
The actual rule was dropped on Black Friday, the usual day that government officials dump embarrassing material, knowing the public's attention would be diverted by leftover Thanksgiving turkey, bargain-hunting, college football games and family outings.
By this time, the IRS targeting was in the open, so the administration said the rule change was a reaction to various findings made by the inspector general. Ways and Means Chairman Rep. Dave Camp, Michigan Republican, rejected that explanation in light of clear evidence otherwise, and called the new rule "another line of attack against these [conservative] groups."
When he pressed Mr. Koskinen to reconcile the administration's statements with what was actually happening, the usually unflappable IRS commissioner wriggled and squirmed before reciting from talking points on an unrelated issue. He had no answer.
The Democratic goal is the suppression of dissenting speech. Manipulating the nonprofit definition to exclude the Tea Party provides a competitive advantage to the unions that are the prime source of Democratic Party fundraising.
Unions have advantages already, including public funding for their political operations. In 2012, IRS employees used 600,000 hours of official work time to conduct union business. This paid advocacy time helped the union organize lawsuits to coerce Mr. Koskinen into doling out $43 million in bonuses to union employees.
"These are not bonuses. They are performance awards," Mr. Koskinen told the subcommittee Wednesday.
The IRS commissioner concedes that the unfolding scandal has seriously damaged the agency's credibility. "I am concerned," he said, "that everyone getting an audit notice now from the IRS is going to think, 'Well, it must be because of something I said or a meeting I went to,' but I can assure you we've looked into this."
The IRS chill on free speech will be made worse if the nonprofit rule becomes permanent before all questions are resolved. Given the new revelations surrounding the rule's drafting, the IRS must not do that until the congressional investigations are complete.
That shouldn't be hard. The IRS has a lot of experience with stalling.
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