House Speaker John A. Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell issued a joint letter Thursday demanding the IRS withdraw its controversial new rules governing political activities of outside interest groups, arguing they are the next step in the administration’s “intimidation and harassment” of tea party groups.
In their letter to IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, the Republicans said the new proposals, issued late last year, are part of a White House effort to squelch tea party groups.
“It is our view that finalizing this proposed rule would make intimidation and harassment of the administration’s political opponents the official policy of the IRS and would allow the Obama Administration to use your agency as a partisan tool,” Mr. Boehner and Mr. McConnell told Mr. Koskinen.
The letter was also signed by top Republicans on the spending committees, signaling that the GOP may use the annual appropriations process to try to halt the rules.
The missive is the latest salvo in the ongoing fight over the IRS and its relationship with tea party groups. Last year, an internal audit found the agency singled out tea party groups for special scrutiny and delayed their applications for tax-exempt status — in some cases for years.
Leaders of some of those groups testified to Congress on Thursday, saying they still haven’t been interviewed by the FBI, which is investigating whether the IRS committed any crimes in its targeting.
The leaders said they felt targeted for their political beliefs. One group leader, Catherine Engelbrecht, who runs King Street Patriots and True the Vote, two tax-exempt groups that waited years for IRS approval, said that after she began speaking out she, her groups and her business were visited 15 times by four different government agencies.
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, Virginia Democrat, said those visits didn’t prove targeting, and he questioned Republicans’ motives in holding the hearing.
“Innuendo and drawing conclusions and paranoia do not substitute for fact-based, empirical oversight,” Mr. Connolly said.
While there are several investigations looking back at the tea party targeting, Republicans are trying to turn attention to the proposed rules cracking down on political activities in the future.
Under the old rules, groups that organize as “social welfare” nonprofits under Section 501(c)(4) of the tax code are allowed to engage in some political activity as long as it isn’t their primary purpose. Over the last few elections, conservative and tea party groups have argued that means they can spend up to 49 percent of their money on political activity.
Democrats, though, say that’s stretching the rules, and they have called for a crackdown.
Under the new proposed rules, groups said they would be restricted from running voter-registration or get-out-the-vote drives, and would be banned from mentioning the names of candidates in the run-up to elections.
Testifying to Congress on Wednesday, Mr. Koskinen said they are still in the middle of the public comment process, and there are other steps to go before any final decision, which he said he won’t rush.
“There will be a public hearing. There will be numerous occasions for people to bring any information that they would like, or perspectives, about those regulations forward before they are finalized. And they’re not going to be finalized in the near-term future,” he said.
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