Should the IRS Never 'Target' Taxpayers? An Examination of the IRS Tea Party Affair

52 Pages Posted: 2 Apr 2015 Last revised: 28 May 2015

See all articles by Philip Hackney

Philip Hackney

University of Pittsburgh - School of Law

Date Written: March 30, 2015


In 2013, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration faulted the Internal Revenue Service for the appearance of impartiality because it used names and policy positions such as "Tea Party" and conservative ideology to pick applications for tax-exempt status for greater scrutiny. The Inspector General's review came after members of Congress accused the Service of "targeting" conservative organizations. This Article finds the Inspector General's claim lacks a firm foundation. The use of names to select organizations for closer review fits well within the discretionary space that both Congress and courts provide to the Service to collect revenue. However, a narrower legal and ethical claim is supportable: where an enforcement choice impinges on a fundamental constitutional right the Service should exercise a higher degree of care to ensure that its screening choices do not appear biased in an unconstitutional manner. Thus, this review finds the Inspector General's primary claim regarding it being inappropriate to use names to screen applications to be incorrect. However, it finds that the Service violated an ethical norm because it failed to bring a high level of care to a matter that at least impinged on a fundamental Constitutional right. The Article recommends that the Service continue using names to screen applications for tax-exempt status. However, the Article suggests the Service implement procedures to document an unbiased process when evaluating applications that raise questions of a fundamental Constitutional nature.

Keywords: tax, IRS, social welfare, charitable, exempt organizations, tax exemption, tax procedure, administrative discretion, Tea Party, politics, section 501(c)(4), federal income tax

JEL Classification: K34

Suggested Citation

Hackney, Philip, Should the IRS Never 'Target' Taxpayers? An Examination of the IRS Tea Party Affair (March 30, 2015). Valparaiso University Law Review, Vol. 49, p. 453 (2015), Available at SSRN:

Philip Hackney (Contact Author)

University of Pittsburgh - School of Law ( email )

3900 Forbes Ave.
Pittsburgh, PA 15260
United States
412.643.0434 (Phone)
412.648.2649 (Fax)


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