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Don’t Blame IRS Scandal on Citizens United

In the days since the IRS scandal started to unfold, most liberals have tried desperately to stay out of the line of fire by appropriately condemning any illegal or politically biased behavior on the part of the agency. But for many on the left, the politicization of the IRS isn’t the topic they want to discuss–and not just because doing so embarrasses the administration and lends credence to conservative complaints about President Obama’s disdain for the principles of limited government. As far as a lot of liberals are concerned, the problem here isn’t the Nixonian abuse of power by the IRS but the fact that these conservatives are being allowed to raise money to resist the policies of a liberal administration.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi spoke for many Democrats yesterday when she told Chris Hayes on MSNBC that the proper response to the scandal is to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that protected the ability of groups to exercise their right to political speech. Others, like MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell, are treating the whole issue as a misdirection play by conservatives who have exploited federal laws that allow groups that engage in advocacy to get nonprofit status.

But liberals, including the editorial writers of the New York Times, who weighed in yesterday to say the IRS should have cracked down across the board rather than on just conservatives, have this wrong. The IRS scandal shows that what the country needs is more unregulated free speech and fewer attempts by the government to limit the ability of citizens to speak out on issues.

It is true that no one is entitled to tax-exempt status the way they are to free speech. But the liberal interpretation of the law that allows groups that advocate on the issues without specifically endorsing candidates is more than a half-century old and is deeply embedded in our political and economic system. It might make sense to argue that all such exemptions should be lifted, but doing so would penalize a host of legitimate charities and non-political advocacy groups along with the ones that deal with issues with political implications.

Yet the priority for the left isn’t so much increasing the government’s revenues—though they are always in favor of that—as it is in shutting down the debate. That’s why they were horrified by the high court’s Citizens United ruling, since it opened up the floodgates for Americans to use their money to counter the inordinate political influence exercised by the mainly liberal mainstream media.

Liberals have been urging the IRS to crack down on Tea Partiers and others who dissented from Obama’s policies specifically because they feared Citizens United had made it easier for such groups to make their voices heard. And they might have gotten away with it had they applied the same standards to left-wing groups.

But the correct answer to this scandal isn’t unleashing the IRS to harass all political groups. Rather, it is to remind the IRS that issue advocacy, especially on the part of those who wish to defend the principles of limited government and the Constitution, needs to be protected. The corruption does not come from the use of money to create more political speech; it stems from a desire on the part of many on the left to suppress speech they disagree with. That’s why it is no surprise that the IRS chose to listen to the Times and put the screws to conservatives and anyone else who had the temerity to disagree with President Obama’s big-government vision. As with other elements of the liberal reaction to Citizens United, the point is to chill speech. The same is true of the IRS’s campaign against the Tea Party.

As the Cato Institute’s blog notes, campaign finance laws were part of the reaction to Richard Nixon’s abuses, including the use of the IRS to harass his political opponents. Yet today it is the so-called reformers who have created a mindset that leads to the use of the IRS to do the same thing to President Obama’s political foes.

It should also be noted that those who claim that extending tax exemptions to advocacy groups is taking money away from the government or other citizens have it wrong. Money that is not confiscated via taxes is not a gift from the government to the citizen. It is merely allowing the citizen to keep more of what is his or hers. Charitable deductions aren’t a dodge that steals the government’s money because it isn’t the government’s to begin with. Like Obama’s proposals to eliminate or drastically reduce such deductions (which have been thwarted to date), the illegal actions of the IRS are part of a war on philanthropy that has its roots in the president’s philosophy of government.

Liberals are publicly worrying today that the IRS scandal will hinder their ability to strike down Citizens United or to further limit the ability of Americans to exercise free speech. They are right about that, but that is not something we should lament. What we need is not so much a government that can behave in a manner that will allow it to legally harass advocacy groups as one that considers such actions to be beyond the pale. Whether someone in the White House or the Treasury Department encouraged the IRS to play politics in this manner or not, what’s clear is that such actions were very much in tune with the prevailing philosophy of this administration.

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