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Ruth Marcus: The IRS's mirror-image scandal

BY RUTH MARCUS Published: May 15, 2013

Theoretically — which is to say, under the campaign finance law — the identities of those giving more than $200 to political committees must be made public. The lassitude of the IRS in dealing with these supposed nonprofits, combined with the lassitude of the Federal Election Commission, has created a gusher of so-called dark money.

The biggest nonprofit spender in the 2012 campaign was Crossroads GPS, founded by Republican strategists Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed in August 2012, Rove was not exactly coy in describing the group's operations as an adjunct to the Mitt Romney campaign, running more than $50 million in ads “attacking Mr. Obama's policies or boosting Mr. Romney.”

An August 2012 report by ProPublica showed how groups that told the IRS they did not plan to intervene in politics then did exactly that.

The current scandal over partisan scrutiny by the IRS now threatens to engulf the underlying one of the agency's facilitation of bipartisan hidden money. The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations had planned hearings next month on that issue; Chairman Carl Levin of Michigan and ranking Republican John McCain of Arizona announced on Monday the inquiry would be postponed while the committee broadened its look to include the agency's targeting practices.

A healthy democracy demands a system in which citizens can trust that their government does not punish political dissenters. It also demands that citizens be able to know what interests are bankrolling their elected officials.

The two needs are not inherently at odds, but the idiocy of the IRS risks making them so. That is a sad and dangerous byproduct of this unnecessary mess.