Editorial: Email gives context to senators' letters

Published May 18, 2013 at 05:00AM

When Oregon’s U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley and other Democratic senators wrote to the IRS last year criticizing the agency’s regulations, they didn’t mention conservative groups. But Merkley’s email to supporters makes it clear that was his concern.

However, the letters to the IRS didn’t suggest any inappropriate actions — such as targeting conservative groups — that occurred in some IRS offices. In fact, if the IRS had done only what the letters suggested, there would be no basis for the current controversy.

Merkley and his colleagues wrote criticizing IRS regulations that determine which groups qualify for 501(c)(4) tax-exempt status, which requires the groups to be social welfare organizations and permits them to hide their donors. The senators said some groups seeking the status were really political action groups using the status to shield donors. IRS regulations, they complained, were less stringent than the law they implemented.

Separately, though, Merkley sent an email to supporters and media that singled out conservative groups as those “masquerading as social welfare organizations” to qualify for the status.

Is it fair to put the letters and the email together?

Of course.

The email gives context to the letters, and clarifies the political, partisan nature of the senators’ concerns.

Does it make the senators complicit in IRS wrongdoing?

Not directly, no.

Indirectly? Aren’t senators some of the most powerful people in government?

As investigations and hearings explore the controversy in coming months, we’ll learn more about the forces at work and who’s responsible. Avoiding hyper-political overreach is critical to an accurate understanding of what happened and how to fix it.