Conservatives have long tangled with Lerner, who was director of enforcement at the Federal Election Commission from 1986 until 2001, when she moved to the IRS.
“Everything we have seen at the IRS was reeled out first at the FEC,” says Jim Bopp, a noted election-law attorney who represented the Christian Coalition in its successful fight to quash the FEC’s attempt to impose a $5 million fine on the group for political activities. The FEC lost the case on summary judgment in a 1999 opinion written by a Jimmy Carter–appointed judge.
“In a dozen out of the 81 depositions in the case, the FEC wanted to know about people’s religious beliefs or the content of their prayers,” Bopp told me. “Lerner took the speech-chilling culture she developed at the FEC right over to the IRS.”
The timing of the greatly increased scrutiny of tea-party groups by Lerner’s IRS office was curious. Glenn Kessler, the fact-checker at the Washington Post who awarded “a bushel of Pinocchios” to Lerner this week, noted that “the targeting of groups began in early 2010, after the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC was announced on January 21.” Claims that the decision deregulating political speech led to an enormous surge in applications for tax-exempt status are bogus. As Kessler showed, the increase between 2009 and 2010 was only about 7 percent.
Ralph Reed ran the Christian Coalition until 1997 and now directs a similar effort called the Faith and Freedom Coalition. He told me that misbehavior against nonprofits by the IRS didn’t begin with Barack Obama’s presidency. “The corruption and abuse of enforcement power, the harassment of Christian and pro-life organizations began with the IRS regulations trying to block the tax-exempt status of Christian schools in the 1970s,” he says. “The only difference is that this time it was more blatant, and hopefully there’s a better paper trail to see exactly what happened.”
Jim Bopp, the election-law attorney, hopes some good will come out of the IRS scandal. “What’s clear is that bureaucrats and regulators can abuse the system when there aren’t bright lines. This should teach us we have to nail down exactly what the permissible level of political activity for a non-profit is. That will make it harder for arbitrary and capricious bureaucrats who might want to misuse their power.”
It won’t be easy to discover whether the “voter suppression” engaged in by the IRS was malicious and political. But we have to make every effort to find out before the American people start losing confidence in the integrity of our elections.
— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO.