The scandal surrounding the Internal Revenue Service's scrutiny of tax-exempt groups based on their political leanings has prompted investigations by at least four congressional committees and the Justice Department. The acting head of the IRS has been sent packing. And the hearings on Capitol Hill show no sign of abating.
The attention is appropriate because of the troubling questions the scandal raises about the agency's independence. But the report that brought the episode to light — by J. Russell George, a Treasury Department inspector general — became politicized so quickly that those questions may be given short shrift. The criminal investigation will lead where it may, but we're less interested in congressional Republicans' efforts to tie the scandal to President Obama at any cost than we are in finding out how and why the IRS stumbled so badly, and coming up with solutions to fix whatever is broken in the system. That would be done best by a nonpartisan commission working outside the polarized confines of the congressional office buildings.
At issue is the way the IRS enforces the laws governing tax-exempt groups. In particular, the inspector general found that agency employees made inappropriate and intrusive demands for information from many conservative groups that applied for exemption under Section 501(c)(4) of the tax code. Unlike charities, 501(c)(4) organizations can do a limited amount of political campaigning. The inspector general's report shed no light on why IRS employees started singling out those conservative groups, why they sought donor lists and other seemingly inappropriate information, whether the IRS had conducted or still conducts reviews that are similarly focused, and what involvement, if any, Obama administration officials and members of Congress had in the extra scrutiny.