To End IRS Abuses of Free Speech, End the IRS

The tax agency has a history of use as a bludgeon against enemies of sitting administrations and the IRS itself.


Joshua Doubek

To read the headlines, you'd think the biggest controversy involving the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is over the spat between Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) in the course of an aborted hearing into the IRS's targeting of primarily conservative political organizations. "We're better than that as a committee," Cummings protested after Issa cut off his statement/question (the Democrat characterized it as both). Better than that? These are elected government officials posturing for the cameras after Lois Lerner, the IRS's former head of tax exempt groups, refused to testify about violations of free speech rights. None of these people have the right to claim to be "better" than anything.

And lost in this silliness is the real issue: the threat to political expression inherent in the federal tax apparatus, no matter whether through malice, regulatory zeal, ineptitude, or sheer weight of bureaucracy.

The current concerns over scrutiny of Tea Party groups, which later expanded to encompass, to a lesser degree, some progressive groups, grow from the IRS's regulatory power over nonprofit organizations. It's attractive for groups seeking donations to organize as nonprofits, because contributions to them can be deducted from taxes, so long as they don't engage in explicit politicking as the IRS interprets such things. The fact that there's no such thing (and never can be) as clear lines among cultural activity, education, religious proselytizing, and political speech is an invitation to an eternal game of rules-enforcement whack-a-mole by IRS bureaucrats against nonprofits, with severe penalties at stake.

Unsurprisingly, the power to pick who to scrutinize and how to interpret the rules is subject to abuse.

The kerfuffle over Tea Party organizations involves 501(c)(4) groups (referring to the section of the tax code under which they're organized), but the tax agency has authority over organizations registered under any section of the tax code, with different rules to go with each variation.

That putting the IRS in this role with the power to decide what sort of speech is acceptable was a stupid, stupid idea should have been clear from the beginning. The tax agency has a history of use as a bludgeon against enemies of sitting administrations and the IRS itself, which goes back long before regulatory control over nonprofit organizations became an issue. 

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt unleashed tax auditors and prosecutors against newspaper publishers who were critical of his administration, rival politicians inside and outside his party, and former Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, whom he considered a "master mind among the malefactors of great wealth."

"My father," Elliott Roosevelt said of former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, "may have been the originator of the concept of employing the IRS as a weapon of political retribution."

The administration of John F. Kennedy created an "Ideological Organizations Audit project" within the IRS which specifically targeted right-of-center organizations. He also sent tax agents after Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa when prosecutors couldn't touch him.

Richard M. Nixon kept the IRS's focus on ideological enemies—though he flipped it around and targeted liberal and antiwar groups that opposed his policies. He also unleashed tax agents on journalists he found troublesome.

And, the tax collectors take care of their own. When New Mexico's Sen. Joseph Montoya announced hearings into IRS abuses in 1972, the tax agency investigated him and listed him as a potentially violent tax protester.

In a 1989 New York Times article, investigative reporter David Burnham wrote, "The history of the I.R.S. is riddled with repeated instances of agents acting out of self-interest or pursuing their own ideological agenda, as well as examples of Presidents, White House staff and Cabinet officials pressuring the tax agency to take political actions."

Under the circumstances, is it really a shock that the IRS Inspector General found "The IRS used inappropriate criteria that identified for review Tea Party and other organizations applying for tax-exempt status based upon their names or policy positions…"

Fox, meet chicken coop. Could it have been any other way?

Some apologists for the bureacratic scrutiny under which organizations that speak out on political issues suffer say the real issue is that the IRS doesn't do enough scrutinizing—it should put the screws to more organizations across the political spectrum. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) sued to try to force the IRS to be stricter, and to nudge groups that were organizing as 501(c)(4)s to instead incorporate as 527s, so that they'd be subject to different rules, including the requirement that they disclose the source of their money. That would, it should be noted, eliminate one channel for anonymous speech by people who might, for some odd reason, fear retribution for their political statements.

The judge in the case last week dismissed CREW's complaint as too speculative. But his safari through precedent and the tax code on the way to that conclusion left in place the implication that the first thing anybody who wants to join together with others to voice their concerns about public policy should do is avail themselves of a good tax attorney.

That's especially true since the rules are a moving target. Organizations across the political spectrum object that the federal government plans to tighten rules based on the proximity of communications and events to elections, with 60 days as the magic cut-off. In response to the proposed revisions, a letter signed by Bradley A. Smith and Alan Dickerson of the Center for Competitive Politics (CCP) "questions whether the IRS should be engaged in the minutiae of regulating political or politically-related speech at all," although it goes on to recommend a streamlined regulatory process that would keep tax collectors in the game.

Here's a thought: Recognize that the IRS is too dangerous to be allowed to play with politics, in any way. Strip it of the power to distinguish among types of speech and to anoint "acceptable" educational verbiage while penalizing "forbidden" politicking.

That can only be a first step, since the tax agency's depredations against free speech predate the regulation of nonprofit organizations, and its worst actions have been overtly malicious. Dismantling the IRS is a necessary next step in terms of protecting free speech—if necessary, sow the place where it once was with salt.

Yes, more salt will be needed, because the IRS hardly stands alone. CCP's Bradley Smith, mentioned above, is a former member of the Federal Election Commission. He points out the threat posed by his former agency and its state-level counterparts to the exercise of political speech. And law-enforcement agencies from the local level up to the federal government have also abused their authority for political purposes.

And, true, escorting the tax man out of American political life won't actually make the likes of Cummings, Issa, and Lerner any "better" than they are now. Or better than anything at all. But the IRS is especially intrusive in terms of the authority it wields over American life. Dismantling it will deprive politicians of a powerful weapon they've often used against their enemies.

And it's as good a place as any to start tearing down threats to free speech.

NEXT: Drunk and Drugged Driving Arrests Fall in Washington As Anti-Pot Group Warns That Legalization Undermines Road Safety

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  1. Why would they do that? The #1 or the #2 purpose of the IRS was always as a political weapon.

    1. That’s why we have to make them do it. It would be so easy if voters would stop being morons for a little while.

      1. Silly plebe; voters can’t/won’t (pick one) make politicians do anything.

        1. Oh, they can. At least for now. Heck, just the strong hint that voters might freak out usually makes these TOP MEN run for cover.

          1. I believe you seriously underestimate how attached politicians are to their power.

            1. Anon is right. That’s why we have the First and Second Amendments.

            2. They crave it fortnightly, but they also know they can’t do much out of office. A true taxpayer revolt is still possible, though we seem to have lost the will to do anything like that.

              It amazes me that anyone paying income tax anymore would vote for continued theft, since the waste and the punitive nature of taxation is so obvious now.

              1. . A true taxpayer revolt is still possible, though we seem to have lost the will to do anything like that.

                Of course, Reason will continue to argue that you should just not vote. Because that’s the solution.

                1. A true taxpayer revolt would consist of everyone simply not turning in their tax return. See what they do about that. Probably make an example out of somebody.

                2. Well, somebody besides those bussed in to vote themselves more welfare “benefits” should vote, I think.

                  1. I agree. Just sayin it would be interesting to see what would happen if people en masse simply didn’t mail in the revenue they take for granted.

    2. the IRS thing is where I turn the corner and point out that statists (who are also atheist) have simply replaced God with government. I suggest that we don’t need an IRS to be a productive, free society and man, talk about overreaction. Such talk is blasphemy in this country now.

      1. It’s not so much that they’re atheists who replace god with government. It’s that they’re faithful who worship the state AS a god and engage in jihad against anyone who dares suggest that Government is not the sole force binding society together.

        Nice try, though, trying to blame atheists for the evils of government.

  2. What you fail to see is that politicians view using the IRS as a political weapon as a feature, and not a bug.

  3. They should really have a picture of Milton Friedman as their logo. After all, he is the one that made their jobs so possible.

    1. I seriously thought about riding up to DC this weekend just so I could piss on the IRS building and visit the Air & Space museum.

      1. The Air&Space; museum was seriously disappointing. The Wright-Patterson museum kicks its ass in every way.

        1. This is good to know – we’ve been meaning to visit Wright Patt and just haven’t gotten it done. We’ll check that out first.

          *h/t to Beloved Commenter Warty

          1. Of course, I haven’t been there in close to 20 years, so they could have ruined it in the meantime. But it was awesome when I was a kid.

            Plus, while you’re there, you can visit all the other cultural wonders of Dayton. Such as…uh…the…highway out of town?

            1. The space museum in Huntsville, Alabama used to be very good, assume it still is. Haven’t been there in a long time.

            2. Do it in May during the Dayton Hamvention and at least you’ll have a flea market to visit after.

        2. I don’t live near Shitville, Ohio.

        3. Go out to the Udvar-Hazey center at Dullas. That is where they keep the big stuff. The one on the mall is just too small, though it is cool to see the X1, X15 and spirit of St. Louis all in one place.

          1. My favorites are the Dauntless as well as the Pershing and whatever Russian counterpart, but as you said before there’s no accounting for taste…

            1. Out at the Annex at Dulles, they have the first 707, which is pretty cool. Then they have whole collection of Migs and US cold war era fighters.

              The space shuttle is a big attraction out there. But it never did anything for me. I like the planes.

              1. Never knew about that. If I ever do decide to visit DC again, it’ll be first on my list after pissing on the IRS building.

              2. I’ve never been there. Next chance I get I’ll have to drag my son down there and check it out.

          2. Do they still have the Enola Gay on display, or is it too un-PC?

            1. The whole plane. It hangs from the ceiling. It is pretty amazing. They really don’t have much explanation other than saying what it is, which is fine by me.

            2. Ironic that saving 10 million Japanese lives is considered un-PC.

        4. Dude, I reached through the glass and touched this Apollo 11 capsule. I’m like a god now.

          1. Next time someone asks if you’re a god, say yes.

            1. I touched it. I’ve also touched Moon rock several times. Behold, I am Artemis!

              Wait, that sounds wrong.

              1. On the moon, the weekend has advanced beyond your wildest dreams. Weekends now take up the entire week, and jobs have been phased out accordingly.

                1. Which is why it’s such a crime we’ve been denied a Moon colony.

                  1. Would this moon colony be named Libertopia or Somolia?

                    1. Alpha, silly. And it will have those cool Eagle spaceships. That’s where the similarity ends, though I believe elements from the SHADO moonbase would also be incorporated.

                    2. I believe we’ve had this discussion before, but I just wanted to re-confirm that we will also be issued a shapeshifting chick along with this moon base.

                    3. Not sure about that, but there will definitely be purple hair and mesh shirts.

                    4. Somoonila.

                    5. rothbardville. its pretty funny the hardon you libertarians have for big ol’ publically funded museums

                2. I spanked a nerd with a moon rock once.

          2. The Boston Science Museum had an Apollo capsule mockup that you could crawl inside, in the old days. Now they have the shitty fighter from Phantom Menace hanging from the ceiling.

            Oddly enough, I’ve never gone to the Boeing museum, which has a Concorde (which you can see from Marginal Way as you drive past). Maybe I should go.

            1. The museum in Huntsville I mentioned used to have a mock-up of the LM you could mess around in.

              One really impressive exhibit is the Apollo/Saturn V exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center. It’s laid out in sections inside, raised up so that you can walk under it. Fucking amazing.

            2. The Boeing one is worth a visit. My favorite part is the WWII planes, where they have the fighters all parked next to each other. Also, the Air Force One that from the Kennedy/Johnson era.

            3. The shitty phantom menace fighter is now gone.

              Nothing hangs in its place.

              The museum is in a fucking tailspin. There are a few good exhibits, but generally any change they’ve made since 1980 has been a sucky one.

              The current director is on a crusade to rework society to make it more ‘sustainable’ and his moronic religion is making the whole place shitty.

              Literally: the bathrooms all have no water urinals now. With the attendant messes.

              But at least they took out the Naboo starfighter.

            4. The Concorde at the Boeing is pretty cool. But I was disappointed that they don’t let you inside. On the other hand, they do let you walk through their 707 Airforce One.

      2. How can a libertarian enjoy the Smithsonian?

        1. Easily?

          It’s really about the only one worth visiting.

          1. The Museum of Natural History?

            1. They are both Smithsonian?

  4. This post is going to get Tuccille put on the SPLC’s shit list.

  5. Civilization!

    Pay up, suckers.

  6. Of course I’d expect this attitude from a website underwritten by the EVIL KOCH BROTHERS. Why don’t you go club some baby seals, spill oil into the Gulf of Mexico, beat up some immigrants and lock of some womens’ uteri, REASON.

    Man, for a magazine called…

    1. “lock up”, damn it!

    2. Why don’t you go club some baby seals, spill oil into the Gulf of Mexico, beat up some immigrants

      You forgot hiring slaves. Fucking neophyte!

      1. Absolutely. It’s like this place is a cynical, sarcastic and nihilistic echo chamber of emotionally stunted, misanthropic, comically impotent narcissists.

        Man, I just can’t keep that out of my head. It’s like the new “Timber” or “MmmBop” or something. Catchy.

        1. You forgot “projection”.

          1. What, do you think LW was projecting? Inconceivable!

    3. dude, seriously. We have people do those things for us. As if some libertarian is going to take out his monocle and come out the cash-filled swimming pool to find some polar outback in order to club a seal.

      1. Wait, about this pool… Is it water-based? Is it just soaked $100 bills? Or are we talking more like scrooge mcduck’s swimming vault here? It makes a difference.

        1. What libertarian has cash? Did you trade in some Bitcoins for it just because gold is so uncomfortable to swim in?

    4. I feel like we don’t get to drink as much as we did just a couple of years ago.

      1. Yeah, this place hasn’t been the same for drunken binges ever since Postrel left.

        1. I almost went there, but then decided it wouldn’t be fair to do it one purpose.

  7. Welch is on c-span.

    1. Dressed like a FBI Agent.

      1. From 1950.

  8. Lost in this silliness is the real issue: the threat to political expression FREEDOM inherent in the federal tax apparatus, no matter whether through malice, regulatory zeal, ineptitude, or sheer weight of bureaucracy.

  9. To End IRS Abuses of Free Speech, End the IRS

    I would say “go on” but I like this too much to risk it.

  10. Oddly enough, I’ve never gone to the Boeing museum, which has a Concorde (which you can see from Marginal Way as you drive past). Maybe I should go.

    You should. I’ve been there a couple of times, long ago; before they got the Concorde.

  11. Why Libertarians Don’t Get Taken Seriously, Part 2,571….

    “Abolish the IRS” is catchy, but some bureaucracy has to collect taxes. Yes, simplify everything and end the abuses if possible, but please, stop embodying the stereotypes our enemies use against us. (“Libertarians are impractical, pie-in-the-sky fanatics.”)

    Much better would be an article about how to vastly simplify the tax code.

    1. Neal Boortz already wrote that book.

    2. If the tax code were really simple, then the IRS could be replaced by a little old lady wearing a visor who works out of the White House basement.

      1. Your comment reminded me of Beverly Crusher somehow, and I googled her up to find out she’s really fucking old now. I mean, she was a MILF back when I was a kid, but now I feel old.

        1. Your comment reminded me of Beverly Crusher somehow

          That’s because he’s also really fucking old now.

          1. Not as old as she is. I’m mildly surprised to learn that she’s around the same age as my mother.

            1. Your mother is millions of years younger than you? That’s some weird Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy type stuff.

              1. Hey, are you Marvin? I guess you’d have to be an “early” part of his life, since you don’t seem depressed enough yet… though the recent failures of the public to act on crappy government are starting to grate on you… Yes, it all fits.

        2. She’s still hot for 65.

    3. Somehow the country survived for 140 years without the IRS

      1. Different times/old people/hope & change/etc.

    4. Is the manual for determining sales tax a zillion pages long?

    5. “The federal government expanded dramatically in the 20th century and has continued growing in the 21st. Between 1900 and 2012, federal government receipts increased from 3.0 percent of the economy’s output to 16.5 percent, and federal expenditures rose from 2.7 percent of economic output to 24.0 percent. State and local governments have also expanded relative to the rest of the economy, although not nearly as much as the federal government. Between 1930 and 2012, state and local government receipts grew from 8.0 percent to 13.0 percent of economic output, while their expenditures rose from 9.1 percent to 14.8 percent of output. For the overall government sector from 1930 to 2012, receipts increased from 11.1 to 26.4 percent of gross domestic product, (GDP) and expenditures rose from 12.1 to 35.6 percent of GDP.”…..ted-states

      Meaning that if the Federal Government were reduced to its (proper) historic size, then it could be funded without the personal income tax.

      1. edit:
        …if ALL government, Federal, state, and local, were reduced…

  12. Why Libertarians Don’t Get Taken Seriously

    Mmmmm, thiiiiirsteeeee.

  13. There will be hearings, the Republicans will say how evil Obama is, the Dems will say it’s a partisan distraction, and the tax code won’t get reformed.

    I’d love to be wrong. But I’m not.

    1. I’d love to be wrong. But I’m not.

      HAH! I can prove you wrong right now! There won’t be any hearings.

  14. Great article. Let us know how your upcoming audit goes.

  15. Yes, the IRS has no business regulating free speech. But no, you do not have to dismantle the IRS, repeal the 16th amendment, etc. You have to make the IRS obey the law. The law is that “income” that can be taxed is NOT everything that people earn. Rather, income is a specific legal term of art for profits or gain from privileged activity. In fact, the income tax in America is a relatively benign tax on federally privileged activities. The definition of a “trade or business” in the code is “the functions of a public office”. Americans need to assert their rights by not engaging in privileged activities and demanding refunds of monies withheld. The idea of a tax on public offices goes back to old England. Blackstone commented on it. Look at the constitution and see how many times it mentions “compensation for services” as being compensation for a public office. Agencies and instrumentalities of the federal government are taxed. There are millions of Americans who work for the feds. But there are many millions more who do not. See

  16. the right for bored octogenarian plutocrats to buy out an election shall not be infringed.

    1. Rich people’s money can’t buy elections. The only thing that unfairly swings elections is poor people voting.

      1. one dollar, one vote.

        1. How exactly, does money buy elections? Please give real evidence. Facts and stats would be great.
          I won’t hold my breath.

      2. Unless those rich people are funding a get-out-the-vote effort to bring poor, government dependant people to the poles.

        1. That’s what ACORN is for.

  17. The Golden Rule: He with the gold rules. Take the power (and the gold) from the IRS……..simple fix.

  18. I’d like to post a comment supporting this article, but really can’t afford another IRS sponsored assault upon my liberties at this time.

    1. God, More bitching and moaning from an ayn rand cultist? My question for you is how much longer you’ll enjoy playing the victim. It’s been going on like 20 years now.

      1. Yes, IRS abuse is a libertarian myth! You are a sharp one!

  19. When Lois Lerner refuses to testify and invokes the 5th, there is something significant that needs to be discovered. I hope we would all agree on that.

  20. The biggest problem is trying to do an income based tax. Then we have to tell the government every cent we make, and justify every expense in an attempt to get a lower effective rate.

    So many problems will go away with a sales tax
    1. it’s anonymous. you never had to file a return, the government will have no idea how much you make or spend. there’s no measuring the political content of your speech to award a beneficial tax rate.
    2. it doesn’t discriminate – gay and straight are taxed the same, the grocery clerk doesn’t need to know your sexual orientation before establishing your tax rate (but she might need to know if she thinks you are cute)

    ps sales taxes don’t have to be regressive, and don’t have to involve rebates (supplying info to the govt). Here in Pa the first $100 of any item of clothing is tax exempt, as are all groceries and medicines. Therefor basics of living are tax free, luxuries are taxed.

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