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Public Theology: Let's Hear Praise for IRS Workers
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Let's Hear Praise for IRS Workers
The press can't help itself, it must report the most negative and hostile view of things, without basic logic, and Obama joins the chorus.

By Ed Knudson

Imagine yourself employed by the Internal Revenue Service, the tax collecting agency for the federal government. You are responsible for deciding whether or not to approve applications for tax-exempt status for non-profit groups. All of a sudden you start getting in 2010 a large number of new applications and many of those have the name "Tea Party" in them.

Now, you are a technocrat; you do your job on the basis of rational guidelines to make sure you are fair to everyone. But you also have a life, you go home at night and watch the news. You are aware there is an election going on. You may watch Fox News and see that this major television network is pushing for the organization of new groups associated with something called the Tea Party. You learn that several billionaires are providing the funds for organizing such groups. And you hear clearly that these groups hate President Obama and want to destroy any chance of having his health care program enacted into law.

Unless you are a person totally isolated from the media environment you cannot help coming to know that the word "Tea Party" refers to political groups, and not just any political groups, but ones that are very boisterous, full of rage and engaging in hostile talk. You may have seen them screaming at elected officials and pushing people around at town hall meetings. This is the kind of thing the press just has to cover. In fact, it may well be that the media literally helps create these groups; they are given such a major voice in public life not because they have any truth or logic to their beliefs but because they are willing to do crazy stuff to get attention.

Then you go back to work and you see applications for Tea Party groups which want to be tax-exempt. This would mean that other tax payers would be helping to support the work of these groups, which would not be fair at all. The rule you must follow says that tax-exempt groups should be primarily involved in programs for "social welfare", of which there are all kinds in this country. The rule says clearly that applications should not be approved if the primary activity of the group is political, especially supporting particular candidates for office. The rule is a little fuzzy about this but the concept is clear enough. Obviously political organizations should not receive tax-exempt status.

So you hold up approval of these applications and ask for guidance from other sections of your agency. You ask the groups for more information about their activities. You hesitate to simply disapprove the applications partly because your agency has not provided guidelines which are clear enough to do so. So long periods of time go by without any decisions on the applications and people start complaining.

The biggest complainers are members of congress who have been elected through the influence of those very Tea Party groups. The Tea Party groups are not supposed to be involved in electing candidates if they are tax-exempt, but obvious logic does not seem to be a factor in how these groups think about things. And the press ignores this. It doesn't see the contradiction in Tea Party politicians demanding that the Tea Party groups electing them should be tax exempt.

These members of congress put pressure on the IRS and a special audit is done by the Inspector General. This audit finds that "inappropriate criteria" were used to identify groups with "Tea Party" and "patriot" in their names. As an IRS worker you know this is true. You just wanted to make sure that obviously political groups were not getting through the system. You had wanted to be fair to all the taxpayers, including those who would not have wanted obviously political groups to receive tax-exempt status. In fact, that's your main job! That's what the IRS rule says: you are trying to uphold this rule on behalf of all Americans.

But then the audit is made public and your whole world goes crazy.(1) The media gladly report the outrage of Tea Party Republicans who say that the IRS has been "targeting" the Tea Party and attacking such groups, never mind these are all political groups. You as an IRS worker are vilified for doing your work. You are said to be an example of a government that cannot be trusted, that you have violated the sacred trust between government and the people.

Everything the Tea Party itself says about government in general is proven true by those terrible, over-reaching government workers who don't care for the American people and just want to control everybody and take away their freedoms.(2) Even the president himself says that the behavior of the IRS workers is intolerable and he is going to make it right. When he said that, in fact, he lost the faith and trust of vast numbers of people who are faithful workers in government who every day do their best to carry out their important work. And he lost the confidence of very large numbers of Americans who are able to see through the illusions promulgated by Tea Party anti-government rhetoric.

But the media see a scandal and they just cannot help themselves. The media is not able to see the obvious, the totally obvious reality that you, the IRS worker, was able to see. The purpose of Tea Party groups is not social welfare, it is clearly political, nearly exclusively political, and this fact can be seen clearly on television screens day after day for the media just love to capture attention by portraying the antics of crazy people.

So I want to raise my voice in praise of you, the honest and faithful IRS worker. You were trying to do good work. You were trying to do what was right and good in carrying out your profession. You were trying to be fair to all the American people. You deserve praise. The attacks on you of an unthinking and ridiculous press, which will only report negative comments from both Republicans and Democrats, are completely unwarranted.

We live in a crazy political environment when it is impossible for people to see the good that government does on a regular basis most of the time on behalf of everyone, even those who are unable to acknowledge that this is the truth.


(1) I sat down to write this article after reading the forty-eight page report of the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration of May 14, 2013. Inspector Generals do important work, but sometimes they are like local building inspectors, they just have to find something wrong. What the report really shows is that groups expecting tax-exempt status should not be allowed to engage in any political activity at all. The IRS has tried to allow some activity, but the Tea Party groups have pushed completely over any restraint. So these regulations should be very substantially tightened up. It's not the fault of the IRS workers but Tea Party groups which pushed the limits of what should be allowed. Such groups are like teenagers pushing the limits of what the parents allow; and the hollering and screaming being done by these groups sounds just like irresponsible teenagers.

(2) Even thoughtful conservatives like David Brooks have gone off the deep end by seeing the IRS actions as the ultimate in a "culture of unrestraint" which means that government cannot be trusted with anything, and certainly not with something as important as health care. See his column on May 18, 2013, in The Oregonian. He puts primary blame on the government workers which is in my view entirely ridiculous. We should expect better thinking from commentators on all sides of this issue. It would help if people simply reflected on the fact that government today is functioning in an age of incredible complexity.

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Date Added: 5/18/2013 Date Revised: 5/18/2013 11:56:53 PM

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