WASHINGTON - There's an irony in the Internal Revenue Service's crackdown on conservative groups.
The nation's tax agency has admitted to inappropriately scrutinizing smaller tea party organizations that applied for tax-exempt status, and senior Treasury Department officials were notified in the midst of the 2012 presidential election season that an internal investigation was underway. But the IRS largely maintained a hands-off policy with the much larger, big-budget organizations on the left and right that were most influential in the elections and are organized under a section of the tax code that allows them to hide their donors.
"The IRS goes AWOL when wealthy and powerful forces want to break the law in order to hide their wrongful efforts and secret political influence," said Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat who is among a small Senate group pushing campaign finance reform measures that would force these big outside groups to disclose their donors. "Picking on the little guy is a pretty lousy thing to do."
In this Thursday file photo Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder and national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots, speaks during a news conference with Tea Party leaders, including Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., chair of the Tea Party Caucus, left, about the IRS' targeting Tea Party groups on Capitol Hill in Washington. 'I think the IRS' integrity is shattered,' said Martin.
Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS and the Koch brothers' Americans for Prosperity were among those that spent tens of millions of dollars on TV ads and get-out-the-vote efforts to help Republicans. Democrats were aided in similar fashion by Priorities USA, made up of former Barack Obama campaign aides, and American Bridge 21st Century Foundation, an opposition research group led by a former adviser to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
And yet those groups so far have escaped investigations into whether they have crossed the blurry line under the law between what constitutes a tax-exempt "social welfare" organization that is free from donor reporting requirements and a political committee subject to taxes and disclosures.
Watchdog groups and lawmakers who have sought more disclosure and restrictions on such groups claim an injustice. They say the IRS saga over the targeting of smaller groups shines a bright light onto the agency's failure to guard against the flood of secret money into the political system through the creation of the deep-pocketed groups.
Yet other advocates of reform worry that, in light of the IRS disclosure of targeting small groups, government regulators will be less likely to scrutinize the tax-exempt status of the bigger, more powerful groups out of fear that they will appear to be targeting groups for political reasons.
"We expect that opponents of disclosure will try to use the recent developments to allow the groups that are misusing the tax laws to hide donors to continue misusing them. But that's a battle that we will engage in," said Fred Wertheimer, founder and president of watchdog group Democracy 21.
Since a series of court decisions including the Supreme Court's ruling in the 2010 Citizens United case, the IRS has seen an influx of applications - from 1,735 in 2010 to 3,357 in 2012 - by so-called social welfare groups wanting to form under section 501(c)(4) of the federal tax code. That section grants tax-exempt status as long as the primary mission of these organizations is not politics and influencing elections. The IRS makes that determination.