Government overreach: Scrutiny of Tea Party, AP unnerving

The Internal Revenue Service's targeting of Tea Party groups for extra scrutiny and the Justice Department's secret seizure of Associated Press phone records are egregious examples of government overreach.

President Barack Obama should quickly get to the bottom of these insults to the First Amendment and deal with them forcefully, unless he wants to sacrifice his second term to investigations that, unlike the Benghazi charade, would have a disturbing basis in fact.

While both instances are inexcusable, they are also understandable.

Congress had pressured the administration to crack down on leaks related to national security. Republicans, in particular, accused the administration last year of helping Obama's re-election effort by leaking information that made him look tough on terrorism.

While the Justice Department has not said why it seized the AP phone records, the timing suggests it had to do with leaks revealing a plot to bomb an airliner foiled by the CIA.

Whatever the motive, there can be no justification for the Justice Department's overbroad sweep, seizing the records of more than 20 AP telephone lines plus reporters' and editors' home and cell phones, including possible contacts with confidential sources, whether or not they had anything to do with national security and the CIA.

As a onetime professor of constitutional law, Obama should know better. The right to gather and report the news free of government interference is part of this country's bedrock. Also, if we want an open, democratic society, the leakier the government, the better.

The Obama administration has shown unprecedented zeal for investigating and punishing leakers and whistleblowers. The New York Times reports that six current and former officials have been indicted in leak-related cases under Obama, twice the number brought under all previous administrations combined.

Spying on journalists and punishing leakers doesn't make us safer from terrorism; it just moves us closer to despotism.

As for the IRS, it was wrong for agents to single out a particular political philosophy for extra scrutiny. It goes without saying the IRS should be nonpolitical. Attorney General Eric Holder has properly launched an FBI investigation into what went wrong.

But IRS agents in Cincinnati were right to pay attention to the proliferation of political groups masquerading as charities, educational organizations or issues groups.

Taking advantage of recent court rulings and a lax Federal Elections Commission, these groups are laundering political money, enabling millions of dollars to flow into elections with no disclosure of the donors.

Even in ending the long-standing prohibition on corporate political giving, the Supreme Court extolled the necessity of disclosing to the public who is bankrolling political campaigns.

Plus, contributors to organizations under Section 527 of the IRS code can deduct the money from their taxes. Give $1,000 to a candidate for Congress, and you have to pay taxes on it. Give $1 million to a 527 group to help elect that same congressman and you get a big tax break. And the rest of us have to make up for the taxes that others have avoided.

Given the FEC's indifference, Congress should draw brighter legal lines between political groups and charities, and ensure that the public knows who's bankrolling elections — if it can drag itself away from investigating.