Mount Diablo Peace and Justice Center
Mount Diablo Peace and Justice Center

Encouraging peaceful solutions since 1969

Citizens United and the IRS Scandal

IRSBy Bob Maxwell

Of the three scandals currently swirling around the Obama Administration, the only one universally and unambiguously scandalous involves a number of IRS agents in the Cincinnati office who singled out groups with the words ‘Patriot’ or ‘Tea Party’ in their names for extra scrutiny if they applied for tax-exempt status as ‘social welfare’ organizations. Some conspiratorially-minded conservatives have even suggested that Obama’s criticism of the Tea Party during the last Presidential campaign sent a signal to the IRS to go after them.

There is, however, a simpler and more plausible explanation for all this. In the Citizens United decision, the Supreme Court maintained that corporations are ‘people’ and therefore enjoy the same right to free speech that biological people do and so have the right to spend as much money as they want on political campaigns. The majority on the court who pushed through this regrettable decision answered criticism that this would lead to corporate control of political life by suggesting that corporations would be reluctant to exercise this ‘right’ out of fear that they might lose customers and investors who disagreed with their politics. Clever lawyers working for political action committees that hoped for big corporate donations quickly discovered a way around this problem by claiming social welfare organizations are not only tax-exempt but don’t have to disclose their donors! A PAC like, for example, Karl Rove’s ‘Crossroads PAC’ could create a ‘social welfare’ organization (like Crossroads GPS) that could take corporate money anonymously, then ‘donate’ that money right back to the PAC that created it.

All of this presented the IRS with a problem. Clearly, sorting which “social welfare” organizations are the genuine article and which are bogus was going to be a lot murkier than it used to be. Just as clearly, the IRS agents involved in this scandal fumbled the ball. The entirely justifiable suspicions that many of the sudden flood of ‘new’ rightwing organizations claiming to be ‘social welfare’ organizations were up to something fishy was no excuse to single out one particular slice of the ideological spectrum, nor does the fact that previous administrations have used the IRS to go after left-wing organizations and individuals make it justifiable. It was wrong then, and it is wrong now. We can’t very well deny others any rights we claim for ourselves. By extension, if we can’t deny others any rights we claim for ourselves, then we can’t deny any point of view the same right of organization and expression we claim for our own—no matter how much that point of view may turn our stomachs!

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