What IRS Scandal?

Noam Scheiber makes a key argument:

It turns out that the applications the conservative groups submitted to the IRS—the ones the agency subsequently combed over, provoking nonstop howling—were unnecessary. The IRS doesn’t require so-called 501c4 organizations to apply for tax-exempt status. If anyone wants to start a social welfare group, they can just do it, then submit the corresponding tax return (form 990) at the end of the year. To be sure, the IRS certainly allows groups to apply for tax-exempt status if they want to make their status official. But the application is completely voluntary, making it a strange basis for an alleged witch hunt.

So why would so many Tea Party groups subject themselves to a lengthy and needless application process? Mostly it had to do with anxiety—the fear that they could run afoul of the law once they started raising and spending money.

But that seems like a pretty valid anxiety given that political 501(c)4 groups have been denied tax-exempt status in the past. Chait and Bouie buy Scheiber’s argument. Nick Gillespie not so much:

Scheiber makes great hay out of the idea that 501(c)4 groups don’t have to get cleared by the IRS before they can start their engines. If they want to, they can file at year’s end and hope for the best. In Scheiber’s take, to pre-emptively apply – that is, to try and actually follow the law – is a sign of a persecution complex and “neurosis.”

Any accountants or experts in this field care to weigh in?