The IRS Exempt Organizations division, the watchdog for about 1.5 million nonprofits, has always had to deal with controversial groups. For decades, the division periodically listed red flags that would merit an application being sent to the IRS’s Washington, D.C., headquarters for review, said Owens, the former division head.
Because this list was public, lawyers and nonprofits knew which cases would automatically be reviewed.
“We had a core of experts in tax law,” recalled Milton Cerny, who worked for the IRS, mainly in Exempt Organizations, from 1960 to 1987. “We had developed a broad group of tax experts to deal with these issues.”
In the 1980s, the division issued many more “revenue rulings” than issued in recent years, said Cerny, then head of the rulings process. These revenue rulings set precedents for the division. Revenue rulings along with regulations are basically the binding IRS rules for nonprofits.
Other checks and balances had existed too. Not only were certain kinds of applications publicly flagged, there was another mechanism called “post-review,” Owens said. Headquarters in Washington would pull a random sample every month from the different field offices, to see how applications were being reviewed. There was also a surprise “saturation review,” once a year, for each of the offices, where everything from a certain time period needed to be sent to Washington for another look.
The system began to change in the mid-1990s. The IRS was having trouble hiring people for low-level positions in field offices like New York or Atlanta — the kinds of workers that typically reviewed applications by nonprofits, Owens said.
The answer to this was simple: Cincinnati.
The city had a history of being able to hire people at low federal grades, which in 1995 paid between $19,704 and $38,814 a year — almost the same as those federal grades paid in New York City or Chicago. (Adjusted for inflation, that’s between $30,064 and $59,222 now.)
But by 1998, after hearings in which Republican Senator Trent Lott accused the IRS of “Gestapo-like” tactics, a new law mandated the agency’s restructuring. In the years that followed, the agency aimed to streamline. For most of the ‘90s, the IRS had more than 100,000 employees. That number would drop every year, to slightly less than 90,000 by 2012.
In 2003, the saturation reviews and post reviews ended, and the public list of criteria that would get an application referred to headquarters disappeared, Owens said. Instead, agents in Cincinnati could ask to have cases reviewed, if they wanted. But they didn’t very often.
“No one really knows what kinds of cases are being sent to Washington, if any,” Owens said. “It’s all opaque now. It’s gone dark.”
By the end of 2004, the Continuing Professional Education articles stopped.
So the problems came about because the number of workers at the IRS were cut (which meant both that the workers had to do more and there was less oversight) and they didn’t pay well enough to get good workers. Also, note that the changes were pushed by Republicans and signed off by the Clinton administration and were mostly done in the Bush II administration. Thanks guys. Also also, notice that this meant that the IRS was tougher on the small money groups than the big ones:
Over the last two years, government watchdog groups filed more than a dozen complaints with the Internal Revenue Service seeking inquiries into whether large nonprofit organizations like those founded by the Republican political operative Karl Rove and former Obama administration aides had violated their tax-exempt status by spending tens of millions of dollars on political advertising.
The I.R.S. never responded.
During the same period, the agency singled out dozens of Tea Party-inspired groups that had applied for I.R.S. recognition, officials acknowledged on Friday, subjecting them to rounds of detailed questioning about their political activities. None of those groups were big spenders on political advertising; most were local Tea Party organizations with shoestring budgets.
They also didn’t go after groups that were very likely breaking the spirit of the law:
A dark money nonprofit group that has run more than $1 million in ads in the Ohio race for U.S. Senate told the IRS last year it did not plan to spend any money to influence elections when it applied for recognition of its tax-exempt status.
David Dayen puts it together here:
According to data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, IRS audits of the largest and richest corporations have steadily declined since 2005, down 22 percent in the ensuing four years and even more from 2011-2013. In the same period, the agency accelerated its scrutiny of small and midsize corporations. Since 2000, the IRS has been more likely to audit the working poor, individuals and families making under $25,000 a year, than those making over $100,000 annually. The middle class received disproportionately more audits throughout the past decade as well. An IRS unit formed in 2009 called the Global High Wealth Industry Group, designed to give special attention to tax compliance of high-wealth individuals, performed exactly two audits in 2010 and 11 in 2011.
Congress knows full well that defunding the IRS will lead to these outcomes, and that gives a definable benefit to the rich and powerful, who know how to slip through the cracks of the tax code. “For a big corporation wanting to play fast and loose, this is manna from heaven,” David Cay Johnston said. “They’re the ones this is helping: the political donor class. It’s a subtle way of taking care of your friends.”
The problem is that neither of these explanations helps the Republican party, so you’re not going to hear this at the Republican investigation.