Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA) offered a bizarre defense of the IRS’s behavior at a House Ways and Means hearing on Tuesday morning, amounting to an attack on the Tea Party and conservative organizations present as potential money-launderers seeking a tax break from the government, not the exercise of their basic rights.
If the IRS scandal lacked a bully figure, it has one now. McDermott repeated the same attacks on 501(c)4 organizations that other Democrats have recycled in their talking points since the scandal began. But he made the mistake of attacking the witnesses–and misrepresenting the testimony of at least one in particular. All of them, he said, were before Congress because they had been seeking tax subsidies; but as Dr. John Eastman of the National Organization for Marriage–already a tax-exempt organization–had just testified, his specific complaint was about the apparently criminal leak of their donors’ names to a liberal organization.
Earlier in the hearing, it fell to Dr. Eastman to correct Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) in his attack on 501(c)4 groups and the anonymity of their donors, noting that the NAACP had relied on that anonymity as it was targeted by state governments in the Jim Crow South of the 1950s. Now, it was Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) who came to Eastman’s defense, setting aside his prepared questions to remind McDermott that no left-wing groups had been targeted. That point, in turn, was disputed by Democrats–who failed, however, to call any left-wing witnesses.
The basic–and deliberate–fault in McDermott’s attack is the idea that being denied tax-exempt status does not mean being denied freedom of speech and assembly. It certainly does in a context in which applications for tax-exempt status were followed by intrusive questions about speech (and prayer!), and also, in some cases, further investigation of donors and organizers by the IRS and other federal agencies, creating a chilling effect. And, of course, if the government is seen to favor some groups and not others, that effectively discourages certain kinds of speech and assembly. The issue at stake remains constitutional liberty, not tax exemption.
McDermott and other Democrats showed a greater willingness to push back than they had previously done. But their resistance was as desperate as it was abusive. They pointed out (again) that former IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman (a Democrat) was a Bush appointee, and claimed that the Bush administration carried out similar targeting of liberal groups such as the NAACP.
In the NAACP’s case, however, the recent scrutiny was legitimate: it had run highly political advertising against George W. Bush. In this case, the sweeping investigation and obstruction of every Tea Party group, before they had engaged in any kind of questionable political conduct, is what qualifies the IRS scandal as the national travesty that it is.