Profiling the Tea Party: In defense of the IRS. Sorta. Or not.

You’ve probably noted the controversy surrounding the Internal Revenue Service’s apparent “profiling” of groups aligned with the Tea Party. A discussion on the issue broke out here at S&R this week, with our colleague Sid Bonesparkle suggesting on our internal e-mail forum that perhaps such action, even if it only involved a couple of “rogue” agents, might not be entirely unwarranted.

As is often the case, not everyone agreed with Dr. Sid. In the interest of fostering some debate on the larger issues surrounding the case, we have decided to share out internal discussion with our readers as part of our ongoing Scrogues Converse series.

Dr. Sid Bonesparkle

First, a caveat or two. I’m not a huge fan of the IRS. In general large bureaucracies with minimal oversight make me nervous. This isn’t an anti-taxation thing, it isn’t an anti-government thing, and I can’t say that I’ve ever had any personal issues with them. Call it philosophical.

I’m also not a huge fan of government employees usurping extralegal powers for themselves, although I recognize that expansionism is as natural to a bureaucracy as sucking eggs is to a weasel.

All of which is to say that I am not endorsing or advocating roguery by individuals working within the IRS or any other government agency.

That said, I’m a lot less bothered by these charges than everybody else seems to be.

I know there’s no way that Obama can use this messaging, but I do think there’s a fair question here: Aren’t law enforcement officials well advised to keep a close eye on those who advocate positions that aren’t in line with the law?

For instance:

  • If you insist on your right to stockpile military grade weapons and you advocate overthrowing the government, aren’t the FBI and ATF justified in surveilling you?
  • I’m guessing all kinds of agencies, from local police up through the Justice Dept., pay attention to those who want to legalize drugs.
  • If you’re the cops and you find out that the newly elected president of NAMBLA lives in your town, you might be interested in that.
  • What about eco-terrorists? You don’t think the law in the vicinity of pipeline development is interested in them?

And so on. The Tea Party’s stated raison d’etre is all about taxation. Now, their propaganda hacks might shape the rhetoric in a way that suggests the civic side of the word “reform,” but if you’ve been paying attention for the past few years (and by “few” I mean 35) you know that in their view ALL taxes are evil. We see corps making billions and paying no taxes. We see the hyper-wealthy hiding their money offshore. We see Tea Party politicians willing to shut down the government – especially the parts that administer those nasty social programs – in order to further trim taxes on their rich donors.

All of which is to say that the IRS might be justified in keeping a close eye on certain groups, especially when those groups are organizing under 501(c)(4) statutes. Tell me, does this sound like the Tea Party groups with which you’re familiar?

Civic leagues or organizations not organized for profit but operated exclusively for the promotion of social welfare, or local associations of employees, the membership of which is limited to the employees of a designated person or persons in a particular municipality, and the net earnings of which are devoted exclusively to charitable, educational, or recreational purposes.

Despite pretending to be a grassroots movement of concerned citizens, we now know that the Tea Party is nothing of the sort. It was from the start an astroturf put-up job funded by the billionaire Koch brothers that emerged from decades of deep planning by the tobacco industry, and if you’re going to allow it to organize and operate under the 501(c)(4) umbrella you might as well let the Democratic Party and Exxon organize as charitable non-profits.

In other words, the groups “targeted” by the IRS were and are and always will be, in their DNA, dedicated to undermining our revenue system. This doesn’t make them criminals automatically – certainly one can work to change laws that one disagrees with – but when your methods are overtly built around gaming the system, it’s not my fault if I’m wary of you. If you don’t want to be treated like a sneaky egg-sucking weasel, then don’t sneak around the henhouse when you think I’m not looking.

Just saying.

Cat White


This is the reason I have been skeptical of this particular outcry. The Parties (intentionally capitalized) questioned are political in nature, back candidates, and are anti-tax. Where’s the “social welfare” aspect? It’s in our collective best interests to do away with all taxes? I don’t think so.

Talk about being able to identify a duck from its characteristics.

Oh, but in this case it’s not a duck because it wants to be a cow.

Ok, sure.


I’m nervous about this one. We have enough problems controlling the FBI, et al. Not sure we want to encourage political activism by other groups as well. Understand what is really happening. The IRS is in part doing its job, but it’s also doing a Ruby Ridge/Waco, squashing opposition to government per se. The desire to protect the institution is nonpartisan.

I personally think this is really bad for Obama. It’s the Manny Ramirez thing. If he fakes an injury, he’s just Manny being Manny. If anyone else does it, they’re assholes. Obama has the narrative going. Yeah, Karl Rove is a liar, but it’s just Karl being Karl. Yes, Tom DeLay rigged elections, but it’s just Tom being Tom. Yes, Mark Sanford is an idiot, but he’s better than a woman librul. Wait, I lost the thread on that last one.

Anyway, this doesn’t fit with Obama’s narrative, which is exactly opposite: “I’m above partisanship, trying to do the right thing. Those guys are the one politicizing everything.” Of course, as Alex said in her post the other day, Boehner’s outrage is feigned because he’s party to worse. But being no worse than Boehner is not what Obama promised us. (It’s what Bill Clinton promised us, but not Obama.)

Sam Smith

Well, this is an interesting question. Were these IRS agents targeting suspicious anti-IRS groups because they were suspicious or because they were anti-IRS? No way to know that, and I’m not sure it matters. The issue for me is whether the groups were acting legally or not. If their actions are structured so as to subvert not only the law as written, but the clear intent of the statute, then the IRS is probably not out of line in having a look, right?

Cat White

Whoa – this isn’t Waco or Ruby Ridge. Yes, Nixon did use the IRS as a blunt instrument. And yes, it can be heavy handed on its own. But if the IRS were going after people who espouse anti-government rhetoric, they’d have to target a large sector of the GOP and THAT ISN’T HAPPENING or their reaction would be nukular compared to this.


Not sure on that. Partial discrimination is still discrimination. If there’s a documented history of teabaggers faking not-for-profit, then it should be a national policy. If not, it was discrimination. My argument is it might not be polical but rather the natural antipathy of those inside the institution for those who criticize of it.

Sam Smith

I don’t personally care about the Obama PR angle at all. He’s working hard to cement his legacy as “not quite as bad as Bush was, except for all those civil rights issues.” Really, my only concern is whether the agency is operating more or less efficaciously. Whether you like the point Bonesparkle is raising or not, Cat is dead on the money. She even understates the case a bit, I think.


Didn’t the GAO say that there’s no evidence that there was targeting? Caveat for protecting your own and whatnot.

In any case, while people spin over the IRS targeting Tea Party groups, we’re not paying close enough attention to far more worrying actions by the administration, like tapping the AP’s phones for two months because it was mad at journalists for doing their jobs. And now we have the President and AG saying they didn’t know it was happening. Right, that was Reagan’s favorite trick and it’s almost certainly true only in the sense that there’s no paper trail.

Nonetheless, it’s comical that when shit like this happens to the Right it’s a national travesty. Seems to me that the Feds have been harassing the Left for a good many decades. To the best of my knowledge the only thing the CIA’s ever infiltrated was the American Left.


Actually I think they’ve done a good job getting the patriots. Again, they don’t mind anti-people (Klan, abortion clinic bombers) but they hate anti-government.

Sam Smith

I’d love it if we could develop some context around how various factions use the government as a hatchet against those they don’t like. Let’s see here. ACORN. Shirley Sherrod. Oh, and this. Hmmm. What else?

Meanwhile, Obama trips all over himself apologizing for this horrific breach of IRS trust. How dare they profile groups that are working the letter of the law and ignoring the hell out of its intent.


I giggle every time I see that word “profiling,” by the way. If a convicted pedophile applied for a license to open a day care center, would it be wrong to “profile” him?


  • Frank, it’s hard to tell whether you’re innocently missing the point or actively sidestepping it. But missing it you are, and in a couple important ways.

    First, this post isn’t about characterizing the rank and file of the Tea Party. You have a lot more charitable view of them than I do, but that’s completely beside the point. Whether they’re noble patriots or knuckle-dragging hillbillies is utterly irrelevant here. The point is the Tea Party ORGANIZATION – Corporate, if you will. The point is that it’s a division of Koch Brothers Industries and that it is dedicated to undermining the revenue system and further enriching the very few at the expense of the many. This is its reason for existing and one need not be a rocket surgeon to understand that its tactics are iffy, at best. 501(c)(4)? Please.

    Second, nobody here is arguing that agencies of the government or the individual employed therein should behave in a partisan fashion. On the contrary – at least two or three people in the roundtable are explicitly arguing the exact opposite (and one can read Cat’s point in a way that suggests how the refusal to go after certain elements of the GOP is, at a minimum, passively partisan in its effects). The argument is that there’s nothing partisan at all about taking a close look at groups that are potentially behaving ILLEGALLY.

    I appreciate thoughtful engagement, but it’s better if you’re engaging the argument that is actually being made.

  • For two times in two tries you have attempted to draw the focus of the conversation away from the point. That alone is instructive.

    But the post is about a couple of very specific issues, neither of which is what I or you or anyone else thinks of the Tea Party rank and file. If I’m wrong here, you should have no trouble directing me to the passage where the authors address anything but the Tea Party’s leadership and its goals.

    Misdirections do not serve the conversation, nor are they in line with our comment policy. If you want to talk about the issue before us, please do so. If you don’t, stop trying to lead us down a blind alley.

  • One more thing. Re: Organizing for Action and other 501s.

    1: If you are charged with murder, “Sam killed someone, too” is not a defense.

    2: If there are groups using 501 status as a cover for illegal activity, then they deserve the scrutiny of the appropriate agencies, regardless of who they are. I’m a little confused as to what part of the post you think says it’s okay to break the law if you’re progressive.

  • I don’t think anyone would argue that there are many chapters of the Tea Party organization. But the idea that they’re all somehow independent and have nothing to do with the Koch brothers is dogma, not fact. You continue to stay away from those links demonstrating where it came from.

    I suppose one can point to all kinds of organizations around the world, noting their organizational and distributed corporate structures, in the attempt to prove independence. I grew up Southern Baptist and technically each church is an independent entity. Of course, they’re all members of the SBC and there are ways in which they’re tied together quite snugly with ideology and cash. Are they technically and legally independent and autonomous? Sure. Does that describe the street-level reality of the organization’s heft and impact? Not even a little bit. I think that individual parishes in the Catholic Church are legally independent, aren’t they? And I’m pretty sure they don’t all get money from Rome. But it would be utterly silly to describe them as a “loose confederacy,” even though “clusterfuck” probably does apply in many cases.

    The Koch brothers founded the TP, funneled huge amounts of money into it, and what we have today is an organization that behaves in ways that are remarkably consistent across the board. There would be no Tea Party chapters at all in your area without the Koch brothers. Even if your assertion that some of these chapters receive no money from the Koches were true – and it may be – the complex and arcane shell game accounting they have used since the git-go would make it impossible for an army of accountants to prove.

    And I believe your Organizing for Action argument has been answered.

    You can believe what you will about the Tea Party – and at this stage it seems quite likely that you’re a member, so I doubt you’re going to have anything to say that will surprise me – and that’s fine. You have that right. Further, I am not saying that these organizations have violated the law. As you say, the 501 statutes aren’t the best defined in the canon and plenty of observers will tell you that the code is abused by groups from one end of the political spectrum to the other.

    I don’t think there’s anything about the argument being presented here that’s unclear or especially sinister. Government agencies are charged with enforcing the law, and if there is reason to suspect that someone isn’t complying, they’re justified in looking into it. Suspicion isn’t conviction, and if the org in question is innocent, then full speed ahead.

    In THIS case, the real problem is that we’re apparently talking about rogue action by individual agents within the IRS, and THAT is not okay. That point is not in dispute. So no one is suggesting that what actually happened in this case is hunky-dory. There’s merely a question about principle and policy and process.

    • I try not to draw too many conclusions about people from their comments, although the tendency to generalize along established lines is always there. I have been misperceived any number of times myself and if you read enough of what I write you’ll trip across places where I don’t wind up being what it might seem that I am at first glance. Guns, for instance. I hate the NRA with a bloody passion, but am and always have been a dedicated gun owner. I’m generally for the death penalty in principle, and that confuses the hell out of my liberal friends. And so on.

      You’ve proven, I think, that you’re a smart guy and I’m glad to hear about your positions on other issues – that you’re committed to providing your employees with a living wage and benefits, in particular, says very good things about you.

      I’m someone who has lived in the world of words my whole life. I have been a poet (recently retired) and make my living in corporate communications. And I have a PhD in Communication. All of which makes me a) good with words, and b) keenly aware of how they can be put to use in service of various agendas. I’m a strategist from hell, and when I see words and ideas behaving in ways that subtly do more than they pretend, the bells go off. Can’t help it. You work in a Fortune 500 corpcomm environment and see what it does to you.

      As I made clear, your comments behaved in a way that struck me as what I guess I’ll call misdirection with a purpose. I see corporations and political organizations do it every day and I have done it for a living. So I called it.

      Your last two comments seem far more transparent. As for the TP, I have been lately thinking about a series on them and on the liberals we suppose to be so thoroughly at odds with them. If I get around to it, I think you’ll find much to agree with.

  • I do think Frank is responding to the post and he’s right–the issue is perspective.

    To him, obviously, the Tea Party is a viable political movement, while to everyone else it’s a bunch of old white irrelevant men who have been left behind by progress and nod at each other’s foolish rants, about as relevant as the Raccoon Lodge. (After all, when the Tea Party throws up candidates like Sanford, Palin, and ODonnell, how in the world are people supposed to take them seriously?)

    What Bonesparkle intended as a throwaway line is significant to Frank, and that’s fair. If you remember, I got hundreds of comments to a throwaway I made. Readers have the right to react to anything, and just because you/we think it’s a throwaway doesn’t mean they do.

    He’s also right that we tend to give ourselves a lot of slack and don’t always extend that to others. All fair points.

    But Frank, what do you think about the other points? Did the IRS do something egregious and beyond it’s mandate or was this just a goof up? Does this sort of stuff go on under every administration or is it unique to this one? Was it motivated by partisanship or by routine institutional self-preservation instincts? Should Obama be held to a higher standard?

    • Much of what Frank was responding to, at least initially, was his perception of what the authors believe about TP rank and file members. Now, he’s probably right to some degree – I know what I think about those folks, and while I don’t demonize them in a unitary fashion, I do see them as a mixture that includes everything from out and out barking racists to well-intentioned types acting on behalf of an initiative that is directly counter to their own best interests. I might use the word “dupe” in that last instance, but if I did I suppose it should be noted that a lot of people who voted for Obama’s hopey-changey message were dupes, as well, just to head off the challenge I know would be coming.

      However, while I may personally think that the average Tea Party member is a dupe or worse, that is explicitly not what the post is about. If indicting my personal beliefs on the Tea Party in a post where that isn’t the subject is fair game, then I guess technically you could do the same thing when I post about music or the WWE, couldn’t you? I mean, what we suspect about my feelings is fair game, no matter what I’m trying to talk about, right?

      Your comment asks fair questions and I don’t want to derail it, but I do think there’s some value in a case like this in insisting that we stick to the point. As I noted in my previous comment, the roguery of those agents can’t be condoned or tolerated. But that, also, seems to a bit beside the point of the original post.

    • “To him, obviously, the Tea Party is a viable political movement.” That’s exactly the point: it’s primarily political, no involved in social welfare. I’m not going to get into the other issues. Yeah–it’s disorganized and decentralized (on the surface). But almost a hundred years ago Will Rogers said, “I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.” Organization and centralization tend to happen with maturity. The point is that if it’s political, it’s NOT a 501(c)4. PERIOD.

  • Pingback: Tea Party “profiling” case: progressive groups “targeted,” too, and corporate media once again refuses to tell Americans the whole truth | Scholars and Rogues

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