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Remember When the IRS Targeted Environmental Organizations?

This isn’t the first time the agency has investigated political groups – just the first time it’s become a full-blown controversy

On Wednesday night President Obama, speaking from the East Room of the White House, called the IRS scrutiny of some 300 conservative groups “inexcusable.” “I will not tolerate this kind of behavior in any agency, but especially in the IRS, given the power that it has and the reach that it has into all of our lives,” the president said. “It should not matter what political stripe you’re from – the fact of the matter is, is that the IRS has to operate with absolute integrity.”

I agree with the president – even though I think it’s long past time that Congress and the courts developed clearer rules so the IRS can evaluate whether a 501 (c)4 “social welfare organization” is violating the law.

US Internal Revenue Service logo

But before any more public servants get thrown under the bus (see: poor Steven Miller), let’s remember this: Not too long ago, it was environmental organizations and other progressive groups that were being targeted by the Internal Revenue Service.

Let’s go into the Wayback Machine to puncture some of our collective amnesia.

In 2005, Greenpeace USA was subjected to a rigorous IRS audit to see whether the group had engaged in activities prohibited by its 501 (c)3 and 501 (c)4 statuses. (Like many public interest groups, Greenpeace has both entities.) Greenpeace passed the audit.

The Wall Street Journal later reported that the Greenpeace audit had been spurred by a request from a little-known outfit called Public Interest Watch. That sounds like a high-minded, do-gooder organization, right? Well, turns out that Public Interest Watch was little more than a front group for Exxon Mobil. In one year, more than 95 percent of its $124,000 budget came from the oil industry giant.

Right before the IRS’s audit of Greenpeace, another in-your-face environmental group, Rainforest Action Network, was also targeted by conservatives. In 2004, the then chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, Republican Bill Thomas of California, subpoenaed 10 years’ worth of RAN records. According to the folks at the Civil Liberties Monitoring Project, “right wing groups” such as Frontiers for Freedom and the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise had been publicly clamoring for an IRS audit of RAN since at least 2001.

Over at RAN’s in-house blog, The Understory, Melanie Gleason writes:

“Six months before the subpoena, RAN had successfully won two major corporate campaigns: leading the first major logger, Boise Cascade, out of old-growth forests and transforming the lending practices of the world’s largest bank at the time, Citibank. Was it a coincidence that RAN was served a subpoena fresh off the heels of winning two of its biggest corporate victories?”

Green groups weren’t the only ones who suffered from harassment during the Bush era.

In 2004 the IRS threatened to levy tax penalties on the NAACP after the group’s chairman criticized President George W. Bush for being the first president since Herbert Hoover to not address the nation’s oldest civil rights organization. As Salon’s Alex Seitz-Wald reports, even churches whose pastors had questioned the Iraq War became the subject of IRS investigations.

If we set the Wayback Machine’s settings a little farther back in time, we’ll find that in the late 1960s the country’s oldest environmental group, the Sierra Club, had its non-profit status suspended after the group paid for newspaper ads opposing plans to build a reservoir in the Grand Canyon. After an IRS investigation, the Club’s non-profit status was reinstated.

None of that history excuses the IRS’s apparent selective targeting of conservative groups. I thought that Greenpeace’s Phil Radford said it best when he wrote yesterday in an open letter to Congress:  “While we have serious philosophical differences with any number of groups, corporations and organizations on the political spectrum, the place to resolve those differences is in legislatures, courts, executive branch agencies and the public square. Let’s all bring ideas and plans for what will lead to a better society and debate them freely and openly without fear of intimidation.”

It’s crucial, though, to recognize the differences between the recent scrutiny of conservative groups and the past IRS audit and Congressional subpoenaing of environmental organizations.

The current controversy looks to be a case of bureaucratic bumbling. Here’s how wonk wunderkind Ezra Klein describes it: “A group of [IRS] employees … started giving tea party groups extra scrutiny, were told by agency leadership to knock it off, started doing it again, and then were reined in a second time and told that any further changes to the screening criteria needed to be approved at the highest levels of the agency.” There’s no Nixonian smoking gun here.

Compare that to the Greenpeace audit. A front group created by the richest corporation in the world decided it didn’t like being called names, and so it flexed its political muscle to harass its political opponent. The problem here isn’t an abuse of power (of course ExxonMobil plays rough), but the fact that IRS was used as the instrument with which to push a private agenda.

The Rainforest Action Network episode is even more disturbing. The chair of the House Ways and Means Committee is often described as one of the most powerful people in Congress, because that committee holds the reins on the federal budget and is therefore the source of all sorts of government largesse (read: pork). When that person decides to use his government powers to target an ideological opponent, it undermines the spirit of democratic debate.

And that, even more than the IRS scrutiny of tea party groups, is un-American.

Jason Mark, Editor, Earth Island JournalJason Mark photo
Jason Mark is a writer-farmer with a deep background in environmental politics. In addition to his work in the Earth Island Journal, his writings have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Nation, The Progressive, Utne Reader, Orion, Gastronomica, Grist.org, Alternet.org, E magazine, and Yes!  He is a co-author of Building the Green Economy: Success Stories from the Grassroots and also co-author with Kevin Danaher of Insurrection: Citizen Challenges to Corporate Power.
He is writing a book about wildness in the twenty-first century, to be published next year by Island Press.

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