Friday, May 17, 2013

Congress aims at wrong angle in latest scandals

All the heavy breathing in Washington has to do with two scandals: the deaths of American diplomats in Benghazi, Libya, and the targeting of conservative groups by the IRS. There's also the issue of subpoenaing the Associated Press' phone records, but, truth be told, few people outside the news media give a day-old doughnut about that.

The problem with the two big scandals is that the congressional investigators are aiming at the wrong issues. The Libya inquiry is all about what the administration did after the murders: Why were the "talking points" changed to eliminate al-Qaeda and to blame the attack on non-existent demonstrations about a video? What was President Obama's role and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's role? What were they trying to hide?

The real issue in this matter, as this Atlantic article points out, is not the post-incident cover-up and obfuscation but the pre-incident failure to protect American lives. American diplomats died needlessly because they were left unprotected in a hostile country teeming with Islamist haters of all things American. The State Department asked for more money for overseas security; Congress said no. Congress should be addressing the failure of the government to protect those people sent into harm's way to represent the United States.

On the IRS issue, it's deplorable, though I doubt criminal, to selectively delay applications from right-wing associations while giving a pass to left-wing associations that apply for tax-exempt status. Heads, as they say, have rolled at the IRS as the president tries to deal with this embarrassment. But, again, Congress is in an uproar over the wrong aspect of this case.

The real problem, as Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus has pointed out, is that political pressure groups are masquerading as social welfare organizations and are getting tax-exempt status. Regardless of whether these groups are Tea Party types or Lean Forward progressives, they should not be operating as tax exempt entities under section 501 (c) (4) of the tax code. These are blatantly, openly political lobbying/voter swaying groups who spend nearly all their revenue on political activities. Their tax-exempt status robs the Treasury of millions of dollars and drags down the reputations of legitimate nonprofits, covered by 501 (c) (3) of the code.

There's no political benefit to going after the abuse of the 501 (c) (4) rules, so Congress is ignoring the whole issue. But the U.S. Treasury and U.S. politics would be better off if Congress changed the law to make it clear that "social welfare" does not include political activities, even where there is no specific "vote for" or "vote against" wording.

No comments: