In response to the IRS scandal, voices are rising in defense of the Internal Revenue Service’s need to police the behavior of non-profit 501 (c) groups. Didn’t the IRS need to ensure that groups applying for non-profit status would conduct themselves properly once they had received it? That is the question raised. The answer, actually, is no, not really. The IRS’s enforcement power has to do with misconduct following the granting of tax-exempt status. It should not presume lack of good faith on the part of those applying for the status. What it can do to them, fairly and legally, is revoke the status based on the organization’s behavior after the exemption is granted—thus effectively crippling and destroying it. That is its policing power. It is the threat of losing the status that acts as the deterrent to violating the guidelines and boundaries established by the law. When COMMENTARY was threatened in just this way in 2009 (almost certainly as the result of a political witch hunt the origination of which I do not know) we had no doubt that what the IRS was doing was within the scope of its mandate. We knew that because we were and are highly conscious of the boundaries drawn by the law—that we could not endorse candidates or promote the electoral interests of a political party.
What the IRS was doing in its examination of the applications for tax exemption was nothing less than attempting to use its power to prevent the promotion of ideas someone believed would be injurious. That is the outrage, as is any effort to defend the conduct by saying the IRS was only doing its job.