- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 30, 2014

Conservative groups are mounting a major resistance effort against the Internal Revenue Service’s post-tea party targeting scandal rules, which are designed to clamp down on outside groups’ ability to organize as nonprofits and still play a role in political conversations.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell fired a major shot Thursday, taking to the chamber floor to say the rules amount to a declaration of war on free speech and vowing the GOP will try to block them.

“Every American needs to know about this abuse of power,” said Mr. McConnell, Kentucky Republican. “Let me be clear: What the administration is proposing poses a grave threat to the ability of ordinary Americans to freely participate in the Democratic process.”

SEE ALSO: Holder won’t rule out criminal charges for employees in IRS scandal

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, which has faced IRS audits, said the rules would give the Obama administration more power to muzzle its critics.

“We have seen that this administration cannot be trusted with the authority they have,” he said. “Why give them more?”

But Stephen Spaulding, legal counsel at Common Cause, a nonprofit that advocates government transparency, said the rules apply to groups on both the right and left, and called the idea that they are anti-free speech “laughable.” He said they stemmed from a “kind of paranoid vision that the president is after them.”

SEE ALSO: Justice bars lawyer from testifying before House panel in IRS probe

Sen. McConnell’s remarks and a lot of those on the right and from the tea party are breathtakingly dishonest,” Mr. Spaulding said. “Apparently, they want to give a free pass to folks that would like to abuse our tax laws and set up these social welfare organizations as tax shelters to hide political donors.”

The changes, which the acting IRS commissioner rolled out during the Thanksgiving recess just before he was replaced, have largely flown under the radar while Congress has focused on investigating suspected abuses. In May, an audit from the Treasury inspector general for tax administration found the tax agency had been singling out for extra scrutiny tea party and conservative groups that applied for tax-exempt status.

The proposed rules would create a category of banned “candidate-related political activity” — including registration drives, voter guides and issue advocacy.

Under the current IRS rules, groups that sign up under the 501(c)(4) section of the tax code as “social welfare” organizations can take part in some political messaging, but that cannot be their primary activity. They do not have to reveal their major donors.

The rules, however, are open to interpretation — with many groups arguing that they can spend up to 49 percent of their money on politics without running afoul of the primary-purpose stricture.

The rules prompted the latest fight in a yearslong battle over interest groups and their roles in politics. Democrats have been calling for a crackdown since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision allowed corporations and labor unions to spend money advocating for or against issues, leading to a flood of conservative and tea party groups signing up for nonprofit status.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Maryland Democrat, said the IRS is trying to bring more transparency to the political process so big donors can’t siphon money to tax-exempt groups for political purposes.

“The issue is not whether or not outside groups can spend money to influence these elections,” Mr. Van Hollen told The Washington Times. “The question is whether or not voters have a right to know who is spending gobs of money to bankroll these campaigns and try to influence the outcome of elections.”

He added, “You just have to ask the question: Why is it they don’t want the public to know who is spending all this money in our elections?”

Story Continues →