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Editorial: IRS can't be allowed to be politicized. Does Barack Obama get it?

The Internal Revenue Service inappropriately flagged conservative political

The Internal Revenue Service inappropriately flagged conservative political groups for additional reviews during the 2012 election to see if they were violating their tax-exempt status, a top IRS official said. Credit: iStock

President Barack Obama gave a characteristically bloodless response to questions Monday about the IRS targeting conservative groups. It would be the signature mistake of his second term if he lacks the passion for getting to the bottom of this unfolding scandal. This is not a Republican or Democratic issue, it's one that goes directly to our faith in government.

The IRS has to be absolutely above reproach. An agency with privileged access to the intimate details of our financial lives must never be politicized for partisan advantage. If that's what happened here, those who allowed it must be identified and fired. If they broke the law, they should be prosecuted.

Obama said all the right things in Monday's news conference. He called targeted IRS enforcement "outrageous," "unacceptable" and "contrary to our traditions," and said those responsible must be held accountable. But where was the fire that such corrosive behavior demands? A dispassionate, deliberate approach is Obama's way. But taxpayers must have faith that the IRS treats everyone equitably. A little genuine anger over reports that it didn't -- and during a presidential campaign, no less -- would inspire confidence that Obama gets it and will make sure the IRS does too.

The bare bones of what happened is clear: Between 2010 and 2012, the IRS unit that oversees tax-exempt groups flagged for additional screening organizations with the words "tea party" or "patriot" in their applications for tax-exempt status. That includes 501(c)4 groups that, unlike other charitable organizations, are allowed to engage in some political activity but whose primary function must be promoting social welfare. Many such groups, conservative and liberal alike, actually engage in big-budget, hyperpartisan electioneering.

Lois Lerner, the IRS official who oversees the groups, admitted Friday that some conservative groups were inappropriately targeted and apologized. Candor and contrition is a start, but much more is needed. Lerner learned of the practice in June 2011. She instructed staffers to stop it, but they subsequently drifted back into the same pattern. So, when did Lerner's IRS bosses learn what was going on? What did they do, and when did they do it? Was anyone in the White House aware or involved? A report from the Treasury Department's inspector general due out this week should provide some answers.

Lerner said the fault lies with career IRS workers who used poor judgment but were not politically motivated. Congress needs to make sure. And if that's what actually happened, it points to an appalling failure of management.

Obama said he learned of the scandal Friday from news accounts. That's troubling. The IRS is an independent agency, but the partisan targeting began in 2010, and came to Lerner's attention at a time when conservative groups were complaining bitterly about IRS harassment. Obama should have been on top of it.

Some 501(c)4 groups, both liberal and conservative, probably abuse their tax-exempt status by devoting more resources to politicking than the law allows. Someone should keep a close eye on them all. But once the dust settles, Obama and Congress should consider whether the IRS is the best agency to police groups that are so inherently political.

President Richard Nixon infamously misused the IRS to punish political enemies. That must never happen again.