“When The IRS Targeted Liberals”: Outrage Only Occurs When Lines Between Politics And Social Welfare Are To GOP’s Liking
While few are defending the Internal Revenue Service for targeting some 300 conservative groups, there are two critical pieces of context missing from the conventional wisdom on the “scandal.” First, at least from what we know so far, the groups were not targeted in a political vendetta — but rather were executing a makeshift enforcement test (an ugly one, mind you) for IRS employees tasked with separating political groups not allowed to claim tax-exempt status, from bona fide social welfare organizations. Employees are given almost zero official guidance on how to do that, so they went after Tea Party groups because those seemed like they might be political. Keep in mind, the commissioner of the IRS at the time was a Bush appointee.
The second is that while this is the first time this kind of thing has become a national scandal, it’s not the first time such activity has occurred.
“I wish there was more GOP interest when I raised the same issue during the Bush administration, where they audited a progressive church in my district in what look liked a very selective way,” California Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff said on MSNBC Monday. “I found only one Republican, [North Carolina Rep. Walter Jones], that would join me in calling for an investigation during the Bush administration. I’m glad now that the GOP has found interest in this issue and it ought to be a bipartisan concern.”
The well-known church, All Saints Episcopal in Pasadena, became a bit of a cause célèbre on the left after the IRS threatened to revoke the church’s tax-exempt status over an anti-Iraq War sermon the Sunday before the 2004 election. “Jesus [would say], ‘Mr. President, your doctrine of preemptive war is a failed doctrine,’” rector George Regas said from the dais.
The church, which said progressive activism was in its “DNA,” hired a powerful Washington lawyer and enlisted the help of Schiff, who met with the commissioner of the IRS twice and called for a Government Accountability Office investigation, saying the IRS audit violated the First Amendment and was unduly targeting a political opponent of the Bush administration. “My client is very concerned that the close coordination undertaken by the IRS allowed partisan political concerns to direct the course of the All Saints examination,” church attorney Marcus Owens, who is widely considered one of the country’s leading experts on this area of the law, said at the time. In 2007, the IRS closed the case, decreeing that the church violated rules preventing political intervention, but it did not revoke its nonprofit status.
And while All Saints came under the gun, conservative churches across the country were helping to mobilize voters for Bush with little oversight. In 2006, citing the precedent of All Saints, “a group of religious leaders accused the Internal Revenue Service yesterday of playing politics by ignoring its complaint that two large churches in Ohio are engaging in what it says are political activities, in violation of the tax code,” the New York Times reported at the time. The churches essentially campaigned for a Republican gubernatorial candidate, they alleged, and even flew him on one of their planes.
Meanwhile, Citizens for Ethics in Washington filed two ethics complaints against a church in Minnesota. “You know we can’t publicly endorse as a church and would not for any candidate, but I can tell you personally that I’m going to vote for Michele Bachmann,” pastor Mac Hammond of the Living Word Christian Center in Minnesota said in 2006 before welcoming her to the church. The IRS opened an audit into the church, but it went nowhere after the church appealed the audit on a technicality.
And it wasn’t just churches. In 2004, the IRS went after the NAACP, auditing the nation’s oldest civil rights group after its chairman criticized President Bush for being the first sitting president since Herbert Hoover not to address the organization. “They are saying if you criticize the president we are going to take your tax exemption away from you,” then-chairman Julian Bond said. “It’s pretty obvious that the complainant was someone who doesn’t believe George Bush should be criticized, and it’s obvious of their response that the IRS believes this, too.”
In a letter to the IRS, Democratic Reps. Charles Rangel, Pete Stark and John Conyers wrote: “It is obvious that the timing of this IRS examination is nothing more than an effort to intimidate the members of the NAACP, and the communities the organization represents, in their get-out-the-vote effort nationwide.”
Then, in 2006, the Wall Street Journal broke the story of how a little-known pressure group called Public Interest Watch — which received 97 percent of its funds from Exxon Mobile one year — managed to get the IRS to open an investigation into Greenpeace. Greenpeace had labeled Exxon Mobil the “No. 1 climate criminal.” The IRS acknowledged its audit was initiated by Public Interest Watch and threatened to revoke Greenpeace’s tax-exempt status, but closed the investigation three months later.
As the Journal reporter, Steve Stecklow, later said in an interview, “This comes against a backdrop where a number of conservative groups have been attacking nonprofits and NGOs over their tax-exempt status. There have been hearings on Capitol Hill. There have been a number of conservative groups in Washington who have been quite critical.”
Indeed, the year before that, the Senate held a hearing on nonprofits’ political activity. Republican Sen. Charles Grassley, the then-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said the IRS needed better enforcement, but also “legislative changes” to better define the lines between politics and social welfare, since they had not been updated in “a generation.” Unfortunately, neither Congress nor the IRS has defined 501(c)4′s sufficiently to this day, leaving the door open for IRS auditors to make up their own, discriminatory rules.
Those cases mostly involved 501(c)3 organizations, which live in a different section of the tax code for real charities like hospitals and schools. The rules are much stronger and better developed for (c)3′s, in part because they’ve been around longer. But with “social welfare” (c)4 groups, the kind of political activity we saw in 2010 and 2012 is so unprecedented that you get cases like Emerge America, a progressive nonprofit that trains Democratic female candidates for public office. The group has chapters across the country, but in 2011, chapters in Massachusetts, Maine and Nevada were denied 501(c)4 tax-exempt status. Leaders called the situation “bizarre” because in the five years Nevada had waited for approval, the Kentucky chapter was approved, only for the other three to be denied.
A former IRS official told the New York Times that probably meant the applications were sent to different offices, which use slightly different standards. Different offices within the same organization that are supposed to impose the exact same rules in a consistent manner have such uneven conceptions of where to draw the line at a political group, that they can approve one organization and then deny its twin in a different state.
All of these stories suggest that while concern with the IRS posture toward conservative groups now may be merited, to fully understand the situation requires a bit of context and history.
By: Alex Seitz-Wald, Salon, May 14, 2013
For years, even before Barack Obama was elected, one of the many complaints liberals (mostly) had about the current employer-based health insurance system was “job lock”—if you have insurance at your job, particularly if you or someone in your family has health issues, then you’re going to be hesitant to leave that job. You won’t start your own business, or join somebody else’s struggling startup (unless they provide insurance), and this constrains people’s opportunities and dampens the country’s entrepreneurial spirit.
That this occurs is intuitively obvious—you probably know someone who has experienced it, or have experienced it yourself. And today there’s an article in that pro-Democrat hippie rag The Wall Street Journal entitled “Will Health-Care Law Beget Entrepreneurs?” Amid the worrying about the implementation of Obamacare in January, and the quite reasonable concern that the news could be filled with stories of confusion, missteps, and dirtbags like that Papa John’s guy cutting employees’ hours rather than give them insurance, to avoid the horror of increasing the cost of a pizza by a dime,11This is important: when you hear a story about an employer who cut his employees’ hours so he wouldn’t have to abide by the law, what you’re reading about is a jerk who doesn’t want to offer his employees insurance, not some inevitable consequence of the law. That’s a choice he makes. And don’t forget too that the employer mandate only applies to companies with 50 or more employers, and 96 percent of them already offer health insurance, even without a mandate. it’s a reminder that there will probably be lots of stories like this one in the news too, stories about people whose lives have been changed for the better by the fact that Americans will have something they’ve never had before: health security.
So what kind of effect could the elimination of job lock have on the economy? That’s tough to say. The study referred to in the WSJ article finds that people are much more likely to start a business if they get their health insurance from their spouse’s job than if they get it from their own job; in the former case you’d still have insurance if you started a business, while in the latter case you’d lose it. In addition, and this is particularly interesting, even though you might think of 65-year-olds as looking forward to days of golf and eating dinner at 4 p.m., a large number of people seem to start businesses pretty much the minute they become eligible for Medicare. While it’s hard to get insurance in the current private market if you’re 44, it’s basically impossible if you’re 64.
So it seems that the fact that after January, job lock will be history means that more businesses will be started. How many more? Well, we don’t know yet, and it could depend in part on how affordable the insurance you can get through the exchanges is compared to what people are getting from their employers. And it will be hard to measure precisely how much more economic activity is generated by businesses that wouldn’t have otherwise been started. Obviously, some will succeed and more will fail.
Nevertheless, beyond additions to GDP, there’s something psychological that shouldn’t be discounted, touchy-feely though it might be. The end of job lock means the end of a certain kind of fear that all of us under the age of 65 live with to one degree or another. It’s the fear that leaving a job, voluntarily or otherwise, could become an utter financial calamity if we or one of our loved ones has a health problem. Even if you wish reform hadn’t been grafted on to the existing employer-based system (I’ll raise my hand on that one), ending that fear is huge; it’s one of the best things Obamacare does. Even if it’s difficult to communicate on a bumper sticker.
By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, May 9, 2013
In a meditation on reactions to the Boston bombings and the apparent identification of the perpetrators, TAP’s Paul Waldman says something profound:
Let’s be honest and admit that everyone had a hope about who the Boston bomber would out to be. Conservatives hoped it would be some swarthy Middle Easterner, which would validate their belief that the existential threat from Islam is ongoing and that their preferred policies are the best way to deal with that threat. Liberals hoped it would be a Timothy McVeigh-like character, some radical right-winger or white supremacist, which would perhaps make us all think more broadly about terrorism and what the threats really are. The truth turned out to be … well, we don’t really know yet. Assuming these two brothers are indeed the bombers, they’re literally Caucasian, but they’re also Muslim. Most importantly, as of yet we know absolutely nothing about what motivated them. Nothing. Keep that in mind.
But for many people, their motivations are of no concern; all that matters is their identity.
He goes on to talk about the tendency of U.S. conservatives to reduce large proportions of the human race–including many Americans–to an identity-imputed barbarism that makes them perfect enemies and thus not worth understanding. But it’s sometimes a problem for liberals as well–certainly those who assume that being a white Christian male from the South is an identity that connotes an incorrigible cultural and political enemy (you can see why that might bother me).
But there are two other reasons liberals ought to be especially careful about identity politics–it abolishes the restraining power, real if sometimes attenuated, of universalistic liberal values on those who would otherwise run amok with greed and other forms of tribal and individual self-interest, and it sets up a power contest between identity groups in which those who already have power–typically wealthy white men–are probably going to win. Even if you buy a “fundamentals” analysis of politics as mainly about who we are and what we are statistically likely to believe or vote for, there is a zone, sometimes small but critical, of shared values and rational persuasion that matters on the margins all of the time and in the center of political discourse at least some of the time. That narrow zone is sometimes what separates democratic politics from the ethos of the Thirty Years War.
Look, we all make judgments about groups of people who are antagonistic to our point of view. I routinely say highly disparaging things about the conservative movement and the Republican Party, as they exist today. But I do try to pay attention to what they actually say and their justifications for saying it, which is why, to the anger of some of my political allies, I tend to take conservatives at their word that they believe zygotes are human beings or that the weight of history militates in changes in family structure or that capitalism is the only successful model for wealth creation. I could just dismiss them all as depraved crypto-fascists or as puppets for various puppet-masters, but if that’s the case, what’s the point of writing or contending over politics?
There are real and obvious meta-forces in political life that transcend reason or empirical data or any effort at persuasion, and they are often associated with “politicized identities.”But if we don’t constantly try to understand the motivations beneath these identities and pry them loose into that free air where sweet reason and cooperation can take hold, then we surrender to tribal instincts and a politics of pure power in which not one of us truly ever matter.
By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly Political Animal, April 19, 2013
“Show Us Your Model”: Once Again, Republicans Outraged By Facts, Especially When They’re Complex And Sophisticated
It might be easy to believe we’re approaching Peak Trutherism, what with good old-fashioned birthers now being supplemented by BLS truthers and poll truthers. But just you wait—should Barack Obama win this election, we’ll see an explosion of election trutherism that will be truly unprecedented in scope. In the meantime, we can content ourselves with the newest variant, Nate Silver trutherism, which isn’t coming just from conservatives.
In case you don’t know, Silver runs the blog FiveThirtyEight, which after producing a series of highly accurate predictions during the 2008 campaign got swallowed up by The New York Times. Silver makes electoral projections by taking as many different polls as he can find and running them through an algorithm. Rather than just averaging the polls’ results, the algorithm uses a series of variables, including state polls and each pollster’s prior record, to produce a number of different estimates. As of today he gives Obama a 77.4 percent chance of winning, higher than it has been at some points but not too far off from where he has estimated for most of the campaign.
In the last few days, we’ve seen a couple of different Silver narratives emerge as attention to him has increased. First, you have stories about how liberals are obsessing over Silver, “clinging” to him like a raft in a roiling sea of ambiguous poll data. Then you have the backlash, with conservatives criticizing him not because they have a specific critique of the techniques he uses, but basically because they disagree with his conclusions (No way is Obama going to win!) and because he’s a liberal so therefore he must be intentionally warping his data to produce more Obama-friendly results. For instance, Joe Scarborough recently declared that Silver has to be wrong, because while Silver says Obama has an advantage, Scarborough knows the race is a toss-up, which I guess he feels in his gut. The most hilarious criticism came in this column in The Examiner, which noted, “Nate Silver is a man of very small stature, a thin and effeminate man with a soft-sounding voice.” So there.
Then you’ve got the reporter backlash. At Politico, Dylan Byers raised the possibility that Silver would be completely discredited if Mitt Romney won, because “it’s difficult to see how people can continue to put faith in the predictions of someone who has never given that candidate anything higher than a 41 percent chance of winning.” But of course, if you say there’s a 41 percent chance of something happening and then it happens, you wouldn’t actually be discredited, because 41 is not zero. And that’s not even mentioning the huge number of pollsters who make absurdly wrong predictions all the time and continue to ply their trade. Furthermore, as Ezra Klein points out, a lot of these criticisms come from writers at Politico, the most strategy-obsessed, who-won-the-day publication there is. Looking at the election’s eventual outcome systematically is almost an affront to their business model.
But Silver is only a threat to reporters if they see explaining who is going to win as their primary job. And if that’s how they see their job, they really ought to apologize to the public and find another career. Because there are few things as useless to the citizenry as a reporter giving his or her opinion on who is going to win.
After all, there are lots of interesting and revealing things going on in campaigns. There’s a debate about where the country is now, where it has been, and where it ought to go. There are interesting characters we can learn about. There are policy issues aplenty. Even the dramatic moments of the campaign can be reported on and examined without asking, “Will this change the race?” I’m not saying you have to banish any of the who’s-up-who’s down stuff completely (I certainly talk about it here), but if you actually feel threatened by someone coming along with a persuasive answer to the question of who’s going to win that wasn’t derived from listening to campaign spinners, then you really ought to re-examine what you’re doing.
Finally, let me address the question of Silver’s liberal fans. Do they love the fact that he gives them reason to feel optimistic? Sure. But that’s only half the reason they love him. If he were not as rigorous as he is but was producing the same results, liberals wouldn’t be as taken with him as they are. There are Democratic polling outfits out there, and while liberal blogs might cite them fairly often, none of them have produced the same devotion Nate has. On the other hand, would liberals be as interested in Silver if his analysis consistently predicted a Romney win? Probably not. In other words, it took both to make Silver a liberal hero. His projections had to make liberals feel optimistic, and he had to be going about things in the kind of nuanced, detailed way he is. Liberals are pleased as punch that the thing they want to be true can be supported by a highly complex and sophisticated analysis. They want to feel good, but they also want to feel smart.
By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, November 1, 2012