Selective Scrutiny

Today's New York Times looks at the unfolding drama of non-profit organizations being targeted by the IRS and other government agencies for supposed "political" activity. The biggest lightning rod for administration scrutiny is the NAACP, which is refusing to hand over internal documents for a review of their tax-exempt status.

The IRS's interest in the civil rights group heightened after NAACP Chair (and co-founder of the Institute for Southern Studies) Julian Bond delivered a stinging critique of the Bush/Cheney record at the NAACP's 2004 convention. But the NAACP isn't the only one, says the Times:

Roughly a dozen nonprofit organizations have publicly contended that government agencies and Congressional offices have used reviews, audits, investigations, law enforcement actions and the threat of a loss of federal money to discourage them from activities and advocacy that in any way challenge government policies, and nonprofit leaders say more are complaining quietly.

The Treasury Department has concluded that "political considerations played no role," but the other examples in the story sure sound political:

  • Advocates for Youth, a group which has received government support for two decades to educate young people about reproductive health, in September 2002 was targeted by Congressional Republicans for questioning abstinence-only education. The General Accounting Office later informed Advocates they were under investigation.
  • The Global Health Council lost federal funding because it invited Planned Parenthood and the United Nations Population Fund to a debate about preventin HIV transmission among youth.
  • Three days after testifying before Congress that Bush's "Clear Skies Initiative" was too lenient on polluting power plants, an official with the State and Territorial Air Pollution Program Administrators/Association of Local Air Pollution Control Officials says "the groups were asked by Senator James M. Inhofe ... to supply several years of tax returns, lists of contributors and other documentation."
The government's zeal in going after non-profits that question the administration rests on shaky legal ground, as the Alliance for Justice and others who advocate for the free speech rights of non-profits -- across the political spectrum -- have shown.

But it is doubly dubious at a time when the administration is under fire for using taxpayer money to covertly pay media mouthpieces to promote administration policy, and for its open efforts to politicize public administrative agencies.

Consider how the current administration has tranformed the Social Security Administration into an appendage of Bush's crusade for privatization, as documented by Rep. Waxman's (D-CA) Committee on Government Reform - Minority Office:
Changes in "The Future of Social Security" booklet. The 2000 version of this public primer on Social Security began: "Will Social Security be there for you? Absolutely." In the 2004 version, these reassuring lines are eliminated. Instead, the publication begins: "Social Security must change to meet future challenges."

Changes in agency press releases. [A]s the Trustees' projections of the solvency of Social Security have improved over the last four years, the agency's press releases have grown more dire. The 2001 press release was titled: "Social Security Trust Funds Gain One Additional year of Solvency." By 2003, the estimate of the program's solvency had increased by four years to 2042. Yet the 2003 press release is titled: "Social Security Not Sustainable for the Long Term."

Changes in other agency communications. The Social Security Administration provides its employees a narrated PowerPoint presentation for use before public audiences. The 2000 narrative told audiences, "There is no immediate financial crisis," and "the baby boom generation's pressure on the trust funds s not permanent." The 2004 narratives removes these statements. New additions to the agency's website warn the public of "a massive and growing shortfall" and benefits that "could be reduced by 33 percent."
And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

So which is worse -- independent non-profits who cross fuzzy rules on political involvement, or administrative agencies with direct access to government power who commandeer taxpayer dollars to serve as propaganda arms for the administration's agenda?