WASHINGTON – The Obama administration and House Republicans on Friday called for investigation of the Internal Revenue Service for singling out some anti-tax tea party groups for extra scrutiny of their applications for nonprofit status.
The flagging of such groups was “inappropriate action that we would want to see thoroughly investigated,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters in Washington. “We certainly find the actions taken on this to be inappropriate.”
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said the House would investigate the IRS for targeting the groups. “The IRS cannot target or intimidate any individual or organization based on their political beliefs,” Cantor, R-Va., said in a statement.
Earlier Friday, Lois Lerner, the IRS’s director of exempt organizations, said career employees singled out the groups for further examination based solely on their names, not their applications.
“They didn’t do it correctly,” Lerner said at a conference of tax lawyers in Washington. “We would like to apologize for that.”
By being categorized as nonprofit groups under Section 501(c)(4) of the tax code, organizations don’t have to disclose their donors even when engaging in political activity. Spending by groups that don’t identify their contributors has increased since the U.S. Supreme Court, in its 2010 Citizens United decision, removed limits on independent spending by corporations and labor unions.
Nonprofit groups spent $1 billion in 2012 on campaigns, with more than two-thirds benefiting Republican candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington- based research group that tracks campaign spending. That was triple the $300 million they spent in 2008.
House Republicans pressed the IRS for more information. House Ways and Means oversight subcommittee chairman Charles Boustany Jr. of Louisiana asked for the names of the IRS officials who singled out the tea party groups and said he wants all communications involving the words “tea party,” “patriot” or “conservative.”
House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa of California, who already had sought an inspector general investigation into the IRS questionnaires, said the committee will “aggressively follow up” on the report.
“The fact that Americans were targeted by the IRS because of their political beliefs is unconscionable,” Issa and Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, chairman of the regulatory affairs subcommittee, said in a statement.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky called on President Obama to “conduct a transparent, government-wide review aimed at assuring the American people that these thuggish practices are not under way at the IRS or elsewhere in the administration against anyone, regardless of their political views.”
A national anti-tax tea party group rejected Lerner’s apology.
“The IRS has demonstrated the most disturbing, illegal and outrageous abuse of government power,” Jenny Beth Martin, national coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots, said in an emailed statement. “This deliberate targeting and harassment of tea party groups reaches a new low in illegal activity and overreach.”
The IRS is under pressure from Senate Democrats and watchdog groups to crack down on spending by such nonprofit groups. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said in an interview last month that he would hold hearings on why nonprofit groups are being allowed to spend their money on elections.
Republicans have pressured the IRS to leave these organizations alone. In March 2012, a group of Senate Republicans expressed concern that the IRS had singled out some tea party organizations seeking non-profit status. IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman told a House subcommittee that month that the agency wasn’t “targeting” particular groups.
The tea party organizations were among about 300 organizations seeking nonprofit status that received a higher level of attention by IRS employees, according to the IRS.