- - Sunday, December 8, 2013

While most Americans were buying turkeys, baking pumpkin pies and planning their family Thanksgiving get-togethers, the Internal Revenue Service was hard at work strengthening its grip on free speech. With the release of a new set of new rules governing nonprofit organizations, the tax man is granting himself the authority to crack down further on groups that annoy the administration.

It was only six months ago that the Treasury Department’s inspector general admitted the IRS has been illegally targeting the Tea Party. The agency sent intrusive and unnecessary questionnaires to every conservative applying for nonprofit status. Once the requested paperwork arrived, bureaucrats sat on the applications to ensure they would never be approved. Meanwhile, applications from liberal groups sailed through the process. It is rather inappropriate in this context for the agency to enhance its ability to selectively tell political groups what they can and cannot do.

Federal law requires that a nonprofit organization with the 501(c)4 designation from the IRS devote half of its budget to “social welfare.” The new rules exclude certain activities from the definition, including “communications that expressly advocate for a clearly identified political candidate or candidates of a political party” and “voter-registration drives and ‘get-out-the-vote’ drives.” Voter guides detailing a politician’s views on key issues would not be allowed. Informing citizens about what their elected officials have been doing and encouraging them to vote is a pretty fair example of what ought to be considered promoting the social welfare of the nation.

For decades, labor unions, ACORN, the Rainbow Coalition and other liberal organizations conducted voter drives and distributed issue guides without anyone ever batting an eye. Now that the Tea Party has figured out that conservatives can play the same game, bureaucrats are deciding it must come to a stop.

Before meddling in activities protected by the First Amendment, the Internal Revenue Service must come clean regarding the targeting of Tea Party groups. We need to know who was behind the effort, and why. Despite promising to look into the matter, the White House and its appointees have been stonewalling investigators in the hopes that the scandal will be swept under the rug.

Appearing before the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, the top lawyer at the IRS, William Wilkins, suffered a debilitating bout of memory lapse whenever he was asked about improper conduct at the agency. Mr. Wilkins said “I don’t recall” 80 times during his testimony. Try doing that the next time an IRS agent comes knocking to inquire about charitable donations claimed on a tax return.

The problem isn’t just that a handful of top officials at the IRS have been abusing the public trust. Similar scandals could happen, and have happened, under previous administrations. The root cause of all such scandal is the power that the agency has over everyone’s lives. So instead of enhancing the power of bureaucrats to silence groups with which they disagree, it’s time to take away the agency’s power through tax reform. We need a flat tax or national sales tax so that federal bureaucrats no longer have the authority to tell us what we can and cannot do.