As we're learning more about the IRS giving heightened scrutiny to conservative groups filing for tax-exempt status, we should make one thing clear: If what we've heard so far holds up, the people involved should probably get fired, and new safeguards should be put in place to make sure nothing like it happens again. And let it be noted that liberal publications, at least the ones I've seen, have all taken that position and have been discussing this story at length.
Now, let's see if we can understand the context in which this happened. There's an irony at work here, which is that it may well be that the IRS employees involved were trying to obey the spirit of the law but ended up violating the letter of the law, while for the organizations in question it was the opposite: they were trying to violate the spirit of the law, but probably didn't violate the letter of the law.
Let's take the first part, the IRS employees. When a group files for tax-exempt status, the IRS investigates it, asks it some questions, and determines whether it qualifies under section 501(c)(3) or 501(c)(4). The difference between them is that a 501(c)(3) is supposed to be a genuine charity, like your local food bank or Institute for the Study of Foot Fungus, while a 501(c)(4) is still primarily devoted to "social welfare" but is allowed more leeway to engage in some political activities like lobbying and participation in elections, so long as the political activities make up a minority of its time. The biggest practical difference is that donations to (c)(3) groups are tax-deductible, while donations to (c)(4) groups are not.
Once the Supreme Court said in the 2010 Citizens United decision that (c)(4) groups could engage in "express advocacy" (i.e. explicitly saying "Vote for Smith!"), the IRS got flooded with new applications for (c)(4) groups, and its job was to determine if these groups were actually "social-welfare" organizations that also did some politicking on the side, or if they were groups whose main purpose was actually political, in which case, according to the law, they should be denied (c)(4) status. We know very little at this point about what the IRS employees in Cincinnati did and why, but the generous interpretation is that since so many of the applications they were getting in 2010 and 2011 were from Tea Party groups that looked a lot like their sole purpose was to elect Republicans, they looked for some way to handle them all together, so they searched for applications with words like "Tea Party" and "Patriot" in their names and subjected them to extra scrutiny.
Even if their motivations were innocent and they were just struggling to find ways to wade through all these applications and do their jobs properly—in other words, if there was no violation of the spirit of the law—it was still improper for them to sort the applications this way, because it could mean in practice that an ideological test was being applied to which groups got heightened scrutiny. But now let's look at the other half of the story, the groups applying for tax-exempt status.
The truth is that a great many of the groups that request 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) status, of all ideological stripes, are basically pulling a scam on the taxpayers. Maybe that's a bit harsh, but at the very least they're engaged in a charade in which they pretend to be "nonpartisan" when in fact they are very, very partisan. For instance, nobody actually believes that groups like the Center for American Progress on the left or the Heritage Foundation on the right aren't partisan. When there's an election coming, they mobilize substantial resources to influence it. They blog about how the other's side's candidate is a jerk, they issue reports on how his plans will destroy America, and they do all sorts of things whose unambiguous intent is to make the election come out the way they want it to. CAP and Heritage, along with many other organizations like them, are 501(c)(3) charities, meaning as long as they never issue a formal endorsement and are careful to avoid any express advocacy, they can maintain the fiction that they're nonpartisan (keep getting tax-deductible contributions, which are easier to obtain than those that aren't tax-deductible).
And that fiction is even more exaggerated when you get to the (c)(4) groups, particularly the new ones. For instance, when Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS applied for 501(c)(4) status, it explained to the IRS that it was a social-welfare organization for whom influencing elections wouldn't be its primary purpose. Instead, the group said "Through issue research, public communications, events with policymakers, and outreach to interested citizens, Crossroads GPS seeks to elevate understanding of consequential national policy issues, and to build grassroots support for legislative and policy changes that promote private sector economic growth, reduce needless government regulations, impose stronger financial discipline, and accountability in government, and strengthen America's national security." It claimed that 50 percent of its activities would be "public education," 20 percent would be "research," and the remaining 30 percent would be "activity to influence legislation and policymaking." On the section of the form where the group has to state whether it plans to spend any money to influence elections, it wrote that it "may, in the future" do so, but "Any such activity will be limited in amount, and will not constitute the organization's primary purpose."
As everyone knows, this is a joke. Crossroads GPS was created for one purpose and one purpose only: to get Republicans elected. Maybe they found a way to stay within the letter of the law, but there's no question they were violating its spirit. And the same is true of Priorities USA, the pro-Obama group created in advance of the 2012 election by a couple of former White House staffers. Both are actually twin groups, a (c)(4) and a super PAC, which allows the people running them to keep within the letter of the law by moving spending around between the two. (Stephen Colbert and Trevor Potter memorably explained how all this can be done.)
Without knowing anything about the particular Tea Party groups that were subjected to heightened scrutiny (we've only heard about a few so far), the broader context is that you have a lot of groups of all political persuasions that are essentially trying to pull a fast one on the IRS, and through them, the American taxpayer. Keep in mind that tax-exempt status is a gift that we give to groups that can demonstrate they deserve it. Perhaps this part of the tax code should be made stricter, or perhaps it should be made looser so all these charades can stop. But either way, this wouldn't be a bad time to start that discussion.