Yo, Politico: IRS commits — not violates — sins

Isn’t it interesting how unfamiliar some folks are with religious language?

A reporter passed on this example and it’s telling. It comes from a Politico story about why no one at IRS will ever be held accountable for targeting people for their political beliefs (turns out such targeting is a no-no in our country — who knew?). “Heads won’t roll at the IRS” begins:

Lawmakers pressing for more heads to roll at the Internal Revenue Service are going to be disappointed.

“Why weren’t more people fired?” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) demanded at a hearing Tuesday on the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups, channeling the frustration of his colleagues.

Turns out it’s not so easy.

In fact, it appears that no one has been formally reprimanded and a spokesperson for the union representing IRS workers said it hasn’t been called to help any employees yet. Most employees involved in the targeting program are covered by protections for federal workers that could drag out the termination process.

I wrote a story in 2003 about how federal data indicated that not a single employee at Labor, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Energy, Education, Veterans Affairs and State had been fired in the previous five years, despite all of the reports of poor performance at each agency. I doubt things have changed much since then. Perhaps they have gotten worse.

In any case, this IRS story does turn out to have quite a few interesting religion angles (on that note, maybe you’ll want to see Sarah Posner defend the IRS for its actions against various Americans over at The Guardian‘s “Comment is Free” section).

But this is the section that shows the importance of getting religious lingo right:

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IRS scandal and ‘easy’ religion ghosts

On a recent Crossroads podcast, host Todd Wilken remarked with interest on how many of the year’s major news stories have to do with religion. A cursory glance at the headlines proves it, year after year. But even the non-religion news stories frequently have religion angles.

And so it is with one of the scandals embroiling the Obama administration right now. IRS officials have admitted (via a cartoonish plot to plant a question in front of reporters) the agency wrongly targeted certain groups that had applied for tax-exempt status. Most of the news has focused on the surprising/appalling news that groups were singled out for scrutiny if their group hoped to be “educating on the Constitution and Bill of Rights” among other Tea Party-ish things. This being an egregious abuse of power, looks like we’re in for a long hot summer of getting to the bottom of just what he heck went wrong.

But there is a religion angle. Some reporters have conflated two separate issues. On the one hand, we know that the IRS was targeting groups applying for tax-exempt status. They’ve admitted it. On the other hand, we have many stories about the IRS scrutinizing groups (including religious groups) that already had tax-exempt status. These might be related stories but we’re really still in the fact-gathering stage of this scandal. So keep that in mind when you hear reports from hear and there about curious goings-on. Here’s an RNS report about religious groups that talked about scrutiny they’d faced.

At a hearing today about the initial issue, Rep. Aaron Shock asked IRS officials about why they had asked some groups to provide information about their prayer vigils. You can watch the 2:00 clip here, which includes the IRS official responding that he was unable to say whether this line of questioning was appropriate or not.

You can read the Thomas More Society’s documents or pro-life media for more on this story and why it’s important to the larger debate (e.g., the scrutiny of these groups began in 2009, earlier than the IRS claims its higher scrutiny of some groups began). I’m surprised we haven’t seen more mainstream media coverage of this angle.

But Yahoo had a good report which included the original language from the IRS. (And props to the Washington Examiner for having this story days before the hearing, with a solid report on the initial claims.) The Washington Post‘s Slate site had a fascinating spin on this that gets to the desire of some reporters to move on from the fact-gathering stage … and with less-than-ideal results. Reporter Dave Weigel says that the story may sound incredible, but ….:

Like I said, incredible — which when you think about it tells you how quickly the Overton Window has shifted. If you read the document trove, CFLOI ended up handing the feds documentation on stem cells, on the viability of life in the womb, etc. The IRS accepted this; the group got tax-exempt status. The scandal, obviously, is that there’s something inherently evil about inquiring into the “content of prayers.” But the agency was easily satisfied. The point of the story isn’t that Christianity is being oppressed in America.

I’d just encourage reporters to stick with the first job of explaining the whos and the whats and the wheres of the story. I mean, where do we get the idea that the IRS was easily satisfied? Seriously? Where does that come from? Because if you read the Thomas More Society’s side of things, that is precisely the opposite of what went on. Dramatically different, in fact. I don’t know how you could read their document dump and get that idea:

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