Why shouldn't the tea party have to answer questions posed by an Internal Revenue Service charged with collecting the very taxes that tea party folks so vehemently protest?
Tea party supporters claim their groups — seeking tax exemption with a 501(c)(4) status — are being politically harassed with extensive questionnaires. Chattanooga Tea Party President Mark West said the IRS "stonewalled and delayed" and asked "inappropriate" questions of his fledgling group and others like it in the state and nation.
On Friday, the Internal Revenue Service apologized to tea party groups and other conservative organizations for overzealous audits of their applications for tax-exempt status. The agency admitted to singling out nonprofit applicants with the terms "tea party" or "patriots" in their titles.
The question that should be asked is whether similar profiling terms are being used on Republican, Democratic and far-left groups. That would be fair. And, as hard as it is to give the IRS a pat on the back, that questioning is appropriate.
The New York Times reported more than a week ago that the IRS plans this year to press existing nonprofits like American Crossroads on the Republican side and Priorities USA on the Democratic side to justify their tax-protected status as "social welfare" organizations, a status many tax professionals believe is being badly abused.
Lisa Gilbert, director of Public Citizen's Congress Watch division, said questioning tax exemption applicants to determine if they are primarily political is entirely proper and should be more widely pursued.
"We don't think it's inappropriate to ask questions," she told the New York Times. "Tax-exempt groups are abusing their tax status to pursue political agendas."
Under current law, tax-exempt 501(c)(4) organizations are supposed to be "primarily" engaged in social welfare work. These groups are allowed to to participate in politics, so long as politics do not become their primary focus. Technically, they must spend less than 50 percent of their money on politics. In practice, some spend virtually all their efforts trying to sway elections and acting more like political action committees. The difference is they don't have to disclose their donors in the same way PACs do, so a donor looking to influence an election without revealing his or her identity will send his or her cash to the 501(c)(4).
So the IRS should do its job: Ask questions and look for proof. Just do it fairly, and at least right now there seems to be no proof that scrutiny hasn't been fairly applied. Yes, the IRS says it looked for profiling keywords like "patriot." Perhaps for a liberal group they would look (or have looked) for "progressive."
After all, unlike the long-established Democratic and Republican parties, the upstart tea party movement is new. Born as an ultra-right splinter group of the Libertarian Party, the tea party -- called partly conservative, partly libertarian and partly populist — began sponsoring protests and candidates in 2009.
Everyone knows the government can't do anything in less than five years, so of course IRS is still asking questions of tea party leaders.
By the way, White House press secretary Jay Carney said the events in question occurred while the IRS was under the directorship of a Bush administration appointee. The IRS is an agency run independently of White House oversight. The matter already is under investigation by the IRS inspector general.
But here's the real fallout of this flash-in-the-pan story: It gives Republicans a new round of distractions to throw at the Obama administration, and it gives them a chance to fuse some the cracks between its traditional GOPers and the upstart, out-of-touch tea party movement.
In a news conference Monday, Obama was quick and decisive on the IRS distraction.
"This is pretty straightforward. ... If in fact IRS personnel engaged in the kind of practices that have been reported ... and were intentionally targeting conservative groups, then that's outrageous and there's no place for it." Those responsible, he said, will "be held fully accountable."
Meanwhile, the tea party -- which takes every opportunity to thumb its nose at taxpayer-funded anything — will have accomplished a good bit of taxpayer spending while whining that it has to answer too many questions about what it does with millions, maybe billions, of dollars raised from donors — completely tax exempt.