Former Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner was a regular green-eyeshade employee carrying out thankless tasks until, one day, she caught the attention of House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa of California and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp of Michigan. Since then, her life has been a living hell. Her latest reward for doing her job is a 97-page criminal referral to the Justice Department by the Republican Congress.
And she had a really tough job: As the IRS official in charge of the division that reviews applications for tax exemption, she had to try to figure out what Congress meant when it set up 501(c)(4) tax-exempt status for "social welfare" groups that don't have political activity as their "primary purpose." Does Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS, which spent $70 million in 2012, have a purpose other than politics? Does it heal the sick or help the poor?
Your average layperson probably would deny Rove's application just on its face. But Lerner didn't do that. Instead, she took a clumsy Google shortcut, asking for more information from groups whose names sounded political. Because the tea party was relatively new, extremely vocal and prolific, the groups she examined tended to be conservative.
It's unfortunate Congress gave bureaucrats such a task. If you're doing anything political other than a voter-registration drive, you shouldn't get tax-exempt status, period.
But that's not what this is about. Congressional Republicans are more in love with the issue - and punishing Lerner - than they are interested in correcting any wrongs. Of the 25 conservative groups suing the IRS for "this unprecedented intimidation ploy," not one can claim to have been harmed. More than half of the 15 got their tax-exempt status, 10 are still waiting, and two withdrew their applications in frustration.
I get frustrated with the IRS and I don't make a federal case out of it. Lerner has resigned. In legal fees alone, she's paid her debt to society, if she had one.
The real victims of this silly investigation, besides Lerner, are taxpayers. Issa and Camp have bombarded the IRS's tax-exempt unit with so many requests for information that the agency doesn't have the time - or the fortitude - to go where the real money is: in the organizations that benefit from the 501(c)(3) exemption. The real scandal at the IRS is that it hasn't audited a church in ages. If I raised money for the Congregation of St. Margaret, it would be years before they found out that while I claimed to be holding Mass for shut-ins, I was mainly reading the Sunday papers.
I'm not kidding. You can be a television station hauling in hundreds of millions in income, but if you also call yourself a church, it's tax-free. Shouldn't the IRS be auditing Daystar, the largest U.S. religious broadcast network, with $233 million in assets, and ask it to prove that it's a church and not Home Shopping Network Inc.?
Daystar doesn't have to disclose anything, but National Public Radio reviewed court records from a 2011 employee lawsuit and put together a map of how the money is spent.
It turns out Daystar's founders, Marcus and Joni Lamb, draw generous salaries, make big loans to friends and fly around on a private jet. Daystar took in $208 million in tax-deductible donations from 2005 to 2011. Marcus Lamb says he gave away $30 million over the last five years, but NPR found it was only $9.7 million, or about 5 percent of donor revenue.
The IRS has a simple (and unenforced) 14-point test for churchiness: regular services, Sunday school, ordained ministers and a regular congregation. If Lerner thinks she has problems, imagine what would happen to anyone who looked into the tax status of churches.
Congress can fix that. Instead of splitting hairs to protect a small group of conservative organizations that nothing bad has happened to, how about calling a church a church and a television studio, well, just that?
Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.