IRS doubles down on nonprofit rules

Published on Sunday, 23 February 2014 21:09 - Written by

The Obama administration’s efforts to rein in political speech continue, even as the 2014 congressional campaigns heat up. The efforts are wrong-headed and destructive, no matter what short-term political gain the administration and Democrats hope to achieve.

“With April 15 rapidly approaching, the federal agency that Americans ubiquitously dislike and fear — the Internal Revenue Service — is once again targeting nonprofit advocacy organizations in what may be an effort to censor political speech,” the Heritage Foundation reported last week. “Instead of trying to correct its internal bias and problems, the IRS is apparently trying to double down and stifle the political activity of opponents of the Obama administration and its policies. This effort is supported by some politicians such as Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who wants the IRS to ‘redouble’ its efforts to squelch conservative groups.”

The issue is the role of nonprofit groups categorized as “501(c)(4)” organizations, loosely termed “social welfare” groups. They include everything from the National Rifle Association to labor unions to Tea Party groups.

“At the end of November, the IRS issued a ‘Notice of Proposed Rulemaking’ that, if implemented, would broadly widen the definition of “candidate-related political activity” for 501(c)(4) nonprofit organizations, thereby restricting the ability of groups like the National Rifle Association to engage in political advocacy,” Heritage explains.

Even the left-leaning Chicago Tribune recognizes the trouble here.

“The agency does not get, or deserve, the benefit of the doubt in this realm — if only because it got caught targeting certain conservative organizations,” the Tribune wrote in an editorial last week. “In considering requests for tax-exempt status, it singled out groups with the term ‘tea party’ or ‘patriot’ in their names for extra scrutiny. An investigation by the Treasury Department’s inspector general found the IRS guilty of using ‘inappropriate criteria,’ delaying action, and pelting organizations with ‘unnecessary, burdensome questions,’ such as the names of present and past donors. The agency had to admit the practice was ‘absolutely inappropriate and not the way we should do things.’ But officials don’t seem to have learned the lesson about not discouraging free speech on political matters.”

Government rules and regulations should also defer to more freedom, not less. That’s particularly true with the freedom of speech, the very foundation of our form of democracy. Democrats who decry the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and political activity by organizations might see some short-term benefits, but they’re courting some long-term damage to the Constitution.

Some liberal groups recognize this.

“The Sierra Club said it ‘harms efforts that have nothing to do with politics, from our ability to communicate with our members about clean air and water to our efforts to educate the public about toxic pollution,’” the Tribune pointed out. “The American Civil Liberties Union said it ‘could pose a chilling effect on issue advocacy’ to the disproportionate detriment of ‘small, poor nonprofits that cannot afford the legal counsel to guarantee compliance.’ Labor unions, which do not fall under the regulations, fear that someday they will be included.”

The IRS must back off and let Americans speak freely — even in groups.