Americans of all political stripes should be outraged at the recent revelation that the Tea Party was unfairly targeted by the IRS before last year's election. The IRS should never base its decisions on political preferences or ideological code words, regardless of what bureaucratic challenges it may face. But the lesson that the right is drawing from the IRS's misdeeds — the lesson that threatens to dominate the public conversation about the news — is wrong.
We're seeing a knee-jerk reaction, particularly from the Tea Party and their allies in Congress, that is threatening to turn the IRS's mistakes into an indictment of "big government" writ large. Some are already trying to tie the scandal to the Right's favorite target, Obamacare, and to the Benghazi conspiracy theory.
The danger of this frame is that it will discourage the IRS from fully investigating all nonprofit groups spending money to influence elections. And it will distract from the core problem behind the IRS's mess: the post-Citizens United explosion of undisclosed electoral spending.
Before the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United, only a limited number of nonprofit 501c(4) groups could spend money to influence elections — those who did not take contributions from corporations or unions. But Citizens United lifted restrictions on corporate spending in elections, setting the stage for individuals and companies to funnel unlimited money through all corporations, including c(4)s and super PACs in an effort to help elect the candidates of their choice. Spending by c(4)s has exploded since Citizens United, since the decision allowed any c(4) nonprofit corporation that didn't spend the majority of its money on electoral work to run ads and campaign for and against candidates. And c(4)s, as long as they follow this rule, don't have to disclose their donors under the laws currently in place.
The IRS, then, was forced to play a new and critical role in policing this onslaught of electoral spending. IRS officials clearly made poor choices in how to confront this sudden sea change and those mistakes should be investigated and properly addressed. But strong oversight of this new wave of spending remains critically important and clearlywithin the IRS's purview.
If we let understandable concerns about bad decisions by the IRS lead to weakening of campaign finance oversight, our democracy will be the worse off for it. Instead, we should insist that the government strengthen its oversight of electoral spending — equally across the political spectrum. We should pass strong disclosure laws that cover all political spenders, including c(4)s. And we should redouble our efforts to overturn Citizens United by constitutional amendment and reel back the flood of corporate money that led the IRS to be in this business in the first place.