the national interest

Conservatives Still Using the Fake Obama IRS Scandal to Defund the Tax Police

Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

Conservatives are rallying to oppose the one provision in the infrastructure bill that would help finance it: increased funding for the IRS, which has shrunk to a withered state that has enabled mass-scale tax evasion. Among the reasons they cite to defund the tax police is the fabled Obama IRS targeting scandal.

“Remember Lois Lerner? During her tenure as director of exempt organizations, the IRS unfairly singled out conservative nonprofits for special scrutiny and harassment,” recalls The Wall Street Journal editorial page. “It was a sobering lesson in how one of Washington’s most powerful agencies can be weaponized against political opponents.” Steves Forbes and Moore, a pair of high priests of supply-side economics, cite the still-looming “shadows of the Lois Lerner affair during the Obama years, when the agency targeted the tax returns of conservative organizations and donors who happened to oppose Obama’s policies.”

For one thing, we should note that there is no logical connection between the so-called Obama IRS targeting scandal of 2013 and the conservative effort to starve the IRS enforcement budget. If you believe the IRS had inappropriately singled out conservative groups for abusing tax-deductible fundraising, you should address that by requiring fair enforcement of tax-deductible fundraising. Preventing the IRS from enforcing any of its laws hardly addresses the problem, if the problem were in fact real.

In any case, the Obama IRS targeting scandal was never real. It was undeniably proven false. And the fact that essentially the entire conservative movement endorsed the myth, and never bothered to learn that it was false, is strong evidence that the movement’s misinformation ecosystem existed well before Donald Trump came along to exploit it.

The story is actually extremely simple. In 2013, right-wing political groups began complaining publicly that the IRS was harassing them for using tax-deductible donations for political campaigns, which is illegal. Their defense was not so much that the fundraising was actually legal. (Indeed, the practice of raising donations for “non-political use,” and then funneling them into political campaigning, is a very real crime, albeit one that is rampant and somewhat hard to pin down.) Instead of insisting they had acted legally, the groups charged that the agency was “targeting” conservative groups. Indeed, Republicans immediately insisted that Barack Obama himself had directed the agency to target the Tea Party.

In an effort to show he had nothing to hide, Obama condemned the disproportionate scrutiny of conservative groups and promised to fix it. This apology merely confirmed the impression of guilt, and led the media to treat the allegation as a scandal.

But not only did subsequent investigations find Obama didn’t order the targeting, they found the targeting did not occur at all.

The misimpression was confirmed because Republicans in Congress ordered the Treasury Department to audit the IRS’s scrutiny of conservative groups. The key thing about this report is that it was designed only to look for any IRS probing of right-wing groups. Sure enough, it found a lot of times the IRS scrutinized conservative groups for abusing tax-deductible donations.

Here is a chart from the report. Notice anything odd about this figure? Yes, it’s the giant blue field labeled “other”:

That “other” is all the remaining political groups the IRS scrutinized, the ones whose names are not in the report, because the report only looked for conservative groups. It’s exactly as if your oldest child claims she gets punished more harshly than your youngest child, and lists every time she is punished as “proof,” without comparing it to the number of times her sister is punished.

It took until October 2017, four years after the original “scandal” broke, for the Treasury Department to conduct a complete audit of its political nonprofit investigations. And, sure enough, it found that scores of left-leaning groups faced the exact same treatment as the right-wing groups.

Of course, by then, Donald Trump was committing actual Nixonian abuses on a daily basis, and re-litigating an alleged scandal from four years before hardly made a sound amid the cacophony.

But the belief that the scandal was real endured on the right. Even the party’s least insane voices continued to cite the “targeting scandal” years later, and its most insane voices used Obama’s alleged ordering of the imagined targeting to justify all manner of Trumpian crimes.

And now, of course, the fake scandal is being hauled out once again to justify denying the IRS funds, and enabling wealthy people to avoid paying taxes. It’s almost as if… effective, neutral enforcement of the tax laws was never the conservative goal in the first place.

Conservatives Using Obama IRS ‘Scandal’ to Defund Tax Police