After thinking about and debating the IRS “scandal” further, some of the pieces of information we have learned about the situation are coming together to form a reasonable picture explaining what might have happened to bring about this ordeal. And the grand picture might be rather boring and innocuous as the focus of this ongoing investigation begins to shift to why the delays in approving 501(c)(4) groups occurred.
First, we start with two key pieces of info. Last Thursday, Inspector General J. Russell George suggested in his testimony the IRS made these bad decisions “because of a lack of resources and manpower”. We also know there was a drastic increase in election spending by 501(c)(4) groups beginning in 2008, where spending went from just over a measly $1 million in 2006 to over $82 million two years later. This was followed by a continued increase in 2010.
Two things should be noted about the 2010 election spending. First, it’s rather odd for spending to increase from a presidential election to a midterm. Just look at the 501(c)(4) spending from the years given in the link or total election costs over the past eight cycles. Second, conservative versus liberal group spending was not very lopsided until 2010, when conservative groups spent more than double their ideological counterparts. This was followed in 2012 with conservative groups spending nearly five times what liberal groups spent.
These points taken together give us an idea of what the IRS was up against when it came to enforcing the law: a sudden and unforeseen increase of more than %6000 in election spending by 501(c)(4)s from ’06 to ’08 with a further increase in the ’10 midterms on top of a dwindling workforce and budget to deal with the new problem.
It would seem when 2010 rolled around, the IRS began to realize there was a lot of new spending and much of it was coming from conservative groups, many of which had similar terms in their names. It should be noted the spending would have started very early on in 2010 and even in late 2009 as the Tea Party was trying to oust fellow Republicans in those primaries. The decision to then inappropriately use names to target these groups by the understaffed IRS now seems rationale while still ill-advised.
As time goes on, the decision to target by group names slowly makes its way up the ladder and goes through a series of variations along the way, one of them we know from Thursday’s testimony to be Lois Lerner trying to stop the use of names and focus on political advocacy in July 2011. The higher-ups in the IRS get wind of this and try to remedy the situation but also realize the groups still need scrutiny and still need to be kept within the bounds of the law considering the dramatic increase in election spending.
They ask for a template from the very experienced Carter Hull based on the two cases he was examining and he points out there can be no template because each group is different in how they spend their money and how they operate (again, from Thursday’s testimony). They send his work to a younger and less experienced employee looking for different ideas on building a usable template to examine the groups more uniformly. More delay ensues as the IRS scrambles to both carry out the law and do it in a way that appropriately scrutinizes the groups they must oversee.
I would argue this is not only a very plausible chain of events based on what we know for sure at this point but it would also explain why everyone that has testified has had no doubt the targeting and the actions taken by the IRS were not politically motivated in any way.
The poor choices of the IRS still warrant a thorough investigation and more time will give us more details. But a clearer picture may be emerging as to why this situation played out the way it did and, in the end, we may be yawning and rolling our eyes at the lackluster outcome.