It sounds like the plot from a dystopian libertarian novel. The word "patriot" and the phrase "educating on the Constitution and Bill of Rights" triggered heightened scrutiny from the most intrusive agency in the federal government.
We now know that the Internal Revenue Service did indeed target conservative groups, as had long been rumored and oft-denied. The news is a perverse confirmation of the groups' worldview, and a challenge to President Barack Obama's. He always harangues us about putting more trust in government, and then you find out that the IRS has been singling out his political enemies.
This isn't an unaccustomed role for the IRS. It was notoriously used as a partisan bludgeon by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Richard Nixon, an abuse that was a Watergate impeachment count. In this case, the IRS gave special scrutiny to conservative groups filing for tax-exempt status as so-called 501(c)(4) organizations. Their applications would be flagged if an offending phrase or issue popped up, say, "tea party," or statements criticizing "how the country is being run," or concern about the federal debt. Then, the group might be hit with massive document requests and queries about the activities of family members of board members and key officers.
No one defends the propriety of any of this. President Obama says it is "outrageous," and even the IRS calls it, drawing on that elastic Washington word, "inappropriate." So how did it happen? The IRS explanation is that it was an innocent mistake by the rubes out in the Cincinnati office, who apparently lack an appreciation for objectivity and the rule of law, not to mention common sense.
We will learn soon enough how this holds up. But Ken Vogel, a reporter at Politico who has covered the IRS, says via twitter that the "Cincinnati office has little autonomy" and "mostly just follows DC's instructions." Certainly, if the IRS had a rogue operation on its hands, it didn't act like it. An agency vigilant in defense of the rights of citizens and of its own reputation would have exposed and shut down the misconduct immediately.
Reports say that the IRS targeting of conservatives began as early as 2010, and senior IRS officials learned of the practice two years ago. According to The Wall Street Journal, Lois Lerner, the head of the IRS tax-exempt organizations division, raised concerns about the criteria used for singling out groups in July 2011. Yet she didn't mention it in the spring of 2012 when responding to letters from Republicans who had gotten word that the IRS was harrying conservative groups.
In March 2012 congressional testimony, then-IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman repeatedly denied any targeting of conservatives. Evidently, no one who knew about it did his or her boss the favor of telling him he had misled Congress. In fact, the IRS didn't reveal its inadvertent targeting of conservatives that it didn't in any way support or condone until the Friday before the scheduled release of a report on the matter by the Treasury inspector general. This is how an agency with a guilty conscience behaves.
There are two steps toward making it right. One is a thorough congressional investigation and the firing of anyone involved in the harassment or in looking the other way or covering it up.
The other is, as much as possible, to remove political regulation from agencies like the IRS that can become the tool of one party and its partisan agenda. It is no accident that when complaints about the IRS surfaced in early 2012, The New York Times ran an editorial applauding the agency: "Taxpayers should be encouraged by complaints from Tea Party chapters applying for nonprofit tax status." The Federal Election Commission has its faults, but it is designed to be bipartisan and is better-suited to making politically sensitive judgments.
Needless to say, ours should be a country where you can start a group with the word "patriot" in the title and not incur the hostility of the American government.