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Our Most Hated Agency

When have you ever heard a kind word about the Internal Revenue Service?  Here’s one. The Mensa society has a contest each year:  Change one letter in a word and give it a new definition.  For example, “Intoxicating” to “Intaxicating,” which means the euphoria one feels when you get a tax refund; it lasts until you realize the money was yours all along.  Other than that fleeting warmth, the IRS doesn’t get much love.

Hayden Hollinsworth
Hayden Hollinsworth

One of the most frightening findings in the mailbox is a letter from the IRS and it’s not a green address showing through the envelope suggesting there is a check inside.  I don’t think they even send those out anymore.  Such a letter usually tells you there is some problem with your tax return; that’s enough to make your hands sweat as you open it.

While most of us take for granted all the services delivered by the federal government, they must be paid for with our tax dollars and the IRS is ruthlessly efficient in collecting the fees.  I am surprised when I read a huge number of our citizens don’t ever pay their taxes and seem not to worry about it.  If April 16 rolls around and I forgot to mail the check . . . well, maybe you have the same anxiety I do.

So this week we have been treated to an exposure of bad things being done by our tax collectors.  It may well be that malfeasance has taken place, that intrusive inquiry has been unnecessarily made, that sovereign rights have been violated.  One thing is certain: there is a firestorm to fix blame on the current scrutiny of conservative groups that are seeking 501(c)(4) tax exemptions.

But there is another side to the issue.  Every year the IRS receives countless requests for tax exemption.  Many are worthy but many are not.  If a bunch of people get together and set up an organization designed to “advance social good” then they can apply for tax exempt status.  Suppose that social good is the Deer Eradication of the Exploding Population (DEEP)?  Does that qualify?  I have no idea, but I can imagine the enforcement branch of the IRS would have  real questions about it.

So here’s the problem:  When Citizens United won the Supreme Court case equating corporation money with free speech, conservative groups (largely political action in nature) sprouted like toadstools in a wet spring.  Quite naturally, they all had to have money to operate and they applied for 501(c)(4) status.  They could legitimately claim they were “advancing social good.” Who’s to say; it depends on your political philosophy.

Here’s where the trouble started several years ago and it wasn’t even Steven Miller, the recently fired Acting Director of the IRS, who initiated it.  It was his predecessor, whose name could be a Jeopardy question no one would have answered before last week. Someone suggested that words on an application like “Tea Party,” “Patriot,” or anything that smacked of conservatism be tagged for special observation.  The amount of paper work directed that these applicants assured they would not be able to successfully complete it before the 2012 election; many just gave up and withdrew.  That’s when political motivation entered the fray.  Was this a deliberate government ploy to affect the election?

Now we are told the Tax Exempt Organization Director, Lois Lerner, arranged to have the question brought up in a public presentation last week, admitting that yes, it was true that organizations had been singled out for special study based on the wording of their applications.  Was this whistle-blowing, spin-control, admission of guilt, all three, or just due diligence?

Well, two things are important here.  First, I am glad that the IRS doesn’t rubber stamp every organization that asks for tax exempt status.  But, second, who else might fall under the same magnifying glass? It might be you or me.  Somebody has to investigate and it better be someone we can trust.  In the realm of hyper-partisan politics, how can anyone be sure who that might be?

The IRS and tax collectors?  We need them, but we don’t like them; we never have.  Even St. Matthew was hated by everyone except Jesus and we all know how that ended.

 – Hayden Hollingsworth

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