Today marks the one-week anniversary of the Internal Revenue Service's disclosure that it improperly scrutinized certain conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status. As an inspector general report on the practice found, groups with phrases like "tea party," "patriots" and "9/12 project" were targeted for the "Be On the Look Out" or "BOLO" list, and often ended up waiting two years for notice on their status.
Somewhat lost in the furor over the disclosure is that very few liberal organizations appear to have been approved either. There is no evidence that groups with words like "progressive" or "Democratic" were targeted. But the numbers do suggest that the universe of nonprofit political organizations is small, and that liberal groups were not approved in droves while conservative ones were subject to endless bureaucratic rigmarole.
The IRS publishes a master database of all tax-exempt organizations, so it's possible to see how many groups with these words in their names were approved each month. As the Washington Post demonstrated on Wednesday, there was not a single organization with "tea party" in the name approved in 2011. In 2012, 26 groups were approved.
According to the IRS database, there were 1,017 "social welfare organizations" approved for tax-exempt status in 2012. In IRS-speak, that's a 501c(4) organization of classification type 3. Donations to such groups are not tax-deductable, and they are often not required to disclose donors.
Of those, 28 have the words "tea party" or "patriots" in their name. Only seven have the word "progress": Louisiana Progress Action Fund Inc., Progress Missouri, Progress Texas, Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada Action Fund, Progressive USA, Progressives United Inc., Progressnow. There are no matches for "liberal" or "Democrat." The complete list is at the end of this post.
Limiting the search to social welfare organizations is not the only way to compare liberal and conservative organizations. The Washington Post found that there were 30 groups with "progressive" in their name approved in 2012 by filtering all IRS records by the National Taxonomy of Exempt Entities code, which classifies nonprofits into sectors like "civil rights, social action, advocacy" and "community improvement, capacity building," among many others. This is arguably a more comprehensive approach than limiting the data to 501(c)4(3) organizations, but it also is more likely to include groups that are not explicitly politically oriented.
Even by this more permissive metric, progressive organizations did not appear to receive special treatment compared to conservative ones, judging only by the numbers of organizations that were approved. That does not absolve the IRS from clearly inappropriate behavior. Nor does it suggest that the other side of the aisle had a massive advantage due to the violation.
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