This is NOT by way of excuse, but it's important context. The IRS hasn't limited harassment of nonprofits to Tea Party and related groups.
Interesting piece from Washington Post on the agency's historic harassment of gay rights groups. This is the key takeaway:
The Inspector General’s report on the Tea Party scandal paints a picture of mid-level IRS employees being extraordinarily insensitive to the fact that their method of screening applications to form a “social welfare organization” for possible excessive political involvement was by definition rigged against the conservative groups that exploded in number in the early years of the Obama administration. Even after being told to stop using politically tilted methods of screening the groups for review in 2011, the Cincinnati IRS office charged with reviewing the applications reversed course in early 2012 and went back to screening based on the group’s name.
There are two big similarities with the IRS’s struggles over groups dealing with homosexuality in decades’ past.
The most clear-cut similarity is that when legal standards around nonprofit groups’ tax treatment is vague, it leaves far too much power in the hands of tax collection bureaucrats. In a 1980 ruling on the Big Mama Rag case, the U.S. Court of Appeals found against the IRS, writing that “applications for tax exemption must be evaluated . .. on the basis of criteria capable of neutral application. The standards may not be so imprecise that they afford latitude to individual IRS officials to pass judgment on the content and quality of an applicant’s views and goals and therefore to discriminate against those engaged in protected First Amendment activities.”
And again: Why in the world is preferential tax treatment given to overtly political groups? It shouldn't be. At a minimum, the law should require transparency. The big 501c4 players in recent years were formed primarily to give secrecy to donors influencing election outcomes.
UPDATE: Looks like the IRS has pinpointed two "rogue" employees for the Tea Party misdeeds. If they take the fall — and others were involved — you can bet they'll be talking.
UPDATE II: Oops, the same rogue IRS people targeted at least three liberal groups, too.