Say this much for Assistant Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin: He's got chutzpah. Most congressional Democrats who wrote letters asking the IRS to investigate tea party and other 501(c)(4) conservative groups have fallen silent or are expressing feigned outrage that the IRS would do what they asked. But not Mr. Durbin.
This Sunday on Fox News, Chris Wallace asked the senator why he urged the IRS to investigate a conservative group operating as a tax-exempt organization under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code. Mr. Durbin not only acknowledged that he sent a letter asking the IRS to investigate the group in October 2010, but he defended his request, saying the group he wanted investigated was raising "millions of dollars."
The group in question is Crossroads GPS. I know something about it. I'm not a director, officer or involved in the day-to-day activities of the organization, but I encouraged the group's creation and help raise money for it as a volunteer.
Crossroads GPS is a 501(c)(4) advocacy group that builds grass-roots support for conservative policies that encourage economic growth, reduce needless regulation, promote fiscal responsibility and strengthen national security. Many policies that GPS has championed—for example, no cap-and-trade and a 2011 debt limit deal with spending caps and no tax increase—prevailed.
Mr. Wallace asked Mr. Durbin why he singled out Crossroads GPS for an IRS investigation and pointed out that his letter "did not mention one single liberal group." Mr. Durbin offered this ludicrous defense: If the IRS investigated GPS, "every other group would be put on notice." Correction: An IRS investigation of a conservative 501(c)(4) would leave liberal 501(c)(4) groups gleeful—especially since liberal groups have operated for decades in the same way GPS does without Democrats complaining.
Democrats were content to have 501(c)(4) groups active as long as they were operating on behalf of liberals and their causes. For example, no Democratic leader demanded the IRS investigate the 501(c)(4) arms of the League of Conservation Voters, National Abortion Rights Act League, VoteVets, NAACP, Defenders of Wildlife, Sierra Club and other liberal organizations that have spent millions excoriating Republicans, pushing liberal issues and registering voters.
When Americans United for Change ran ads in 2007 slamming Republican senators up for re-election for supporting the surge of additional U.S. troops in Iraq, no Democratic lawmaker complained. Nor did Mr. Durbin gripe in 2011 when Bill Burton, his former staffer and an ObamaWhite House official, organized Priorities USA, a 501(c)(4) to help the president's cause.
In addition, no Democratic leaders decried big money's influence when groups registered under section 501(c)(5) of the federal code—the tax exemption for labor, agricultural or horticultural organizations—spent hundreds of millions from corporate treasuries on advocacy and political activity. That's because Democrats believe unions are more deserving of tax-exempt status than other organizations, and that corporate contributions are bad unless they come from unions' corporate treasuries.
Apparently my volunteering for Crossroads GPS didn't sit well with Mr. Durbin, who grumbled on Fox News that I was "boasting about the money they were raising."
Not so. A LexisNexis search and a look at my Fox News appearances and columns turned up only one "boast" by me about GPS's fundraising. That occurred when I wrote in these pages on Oct. 13, 2010 that "[American] Crossroads and GPS have raised more than $14 million" in the two weeks after President Barack Obama smeared these groups by claiming they were funded with foreign contributions—a slander for which Team Obama never offered evidence. The problem for Mr. Durbin is that my comment appeared two days after he sent his letter to the IRS.
From the start, Crossroads GPS's leaders were fully aware the group would be subject to intense scrutiny. As a result, they made compliance a priority. Every GPS program, expenditure and communication is legally vetted to ensure that it complies with the rulings and guidance the IRS has issued since tax-exempt groups were authorized in 1913.
What was going on is obvious: Mr. Durbin wanted the IRS to silence conservatives. So did every other congressional Democrat who wrote similar letters to the IRS, from Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus to New York Sen. Chuck Schumer to Vermont Rep. Peter Welch. But in the glare of public attention, using the IRS to cripple or destroy opponents looks corrupt. Abuse of power always is.
A version of this article appeared May 30, 2013, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Dick Durbin, the IRS, and Me and online at WSJ.com.