Haven't read through this thoroughly, and since it's Ezra Klein I'm sure people will dismiss it outright, but...
The story thus far seems both chilling and cheering. Employees at the agency’s Cincinnati branch did employ a test that, in effect, targeted tea party groups. Whether they meant it to be discriminatory or they simply created one that was discriminatory is in contention, but ultimately immaterial. The IRS, more so than almost any other agency, must act in ways above reproach.
But when the Cincinnati group explained their test to IRS exempt organizations division chief Lois G. Lerner, she objected to it and it was changed. A few months later, the IRS would release new guidance that suggested scrutinizing “political action type organizations involved in limiting/expanding Government, educating on the Constitution and Bill of Rights, social economic reform movement,” and after that, “organizations with indicators of significant amounts of political campaign intervention (raising questions as to exempt purpose and/or excess private benefit.)”
The context for all this is that after Citizens United and some related decisions, the number of groups registering as 501©4s doubled. Because the timing of that doubling coincided with a rise in political activism on the right rather than the left, a lot of the politicized groups attempting to register as 501©4s were describing their purpose in tea party terms. A popular conceit, for instance, was that they existed to educate on the Constitution — even if the particular pedagogical method meant participating in Republican Party primaries and pressuring incumbent politicians.
In looking for that kind of language in 2010, the Cincinnati employees were attempting to create a usable shortcut. Like Willie Sutton robbing banks, they were going where the action was. But they needed a clearer test that also identified the language of the left, even if left-leaning groups weren’t exhibiting the same surge in activism. And, frankly, it shouldn’t have been left to career employees in Cincinnati. The IRS needed clearer rules coming from the top. But the top didn’t know what to do with these 501©4s, in part because it feared a situation precisely like this one.
It is worth remembering an important fact here: The IRS is supposed to reject groups that are primarily political from registering as 501©4s. If they’re going to do that, then they need some kind of test that helps them flag problematic applicants. And that test will have to be a bit impressionistic. It will mean taking the political rhetoric of the moment and watching for it in applications. It will require digging into the finances and activities of groups on the left and the right that seem to be political even as they’re promising their activities are primarily non-political.