Earlier this year, the nation was outraged to learn that the Internal Revenue Service was singling out conservative and religious groups for discriminatory treatment when they applied for non-profit status. That scandal—which went to the heart of the Obama administration’s abuse of power and disregard for constitutional principles—briefly held center stage in Washington as agency officials failed to adequately explain how this could have happened and the cover story that the policy was only the fault of a few rogue administrators in Cincinnati fell apart. But, as is par for the course with the 24/7 news cycle, other stories, such as the NSA spying leaks, the government shutdown, and the ObamaCare rollout fiasco soon replaced it. It’s likely that the White House is hoping that the whole affair is now safely shoved down the country’s memory hole.
They may be right about that. Last week, the IRS unveiled an end-run around the problem of illegally targeting conservatives with a rules change. The new policy would reverse a 54-year-old regulation and essentially eliminate an entire class of advocacy groups that just happens to be used by far more right-wing activists than left-wingers. But to ensure that this transparently political maneuver by an agency that is supposed to be above partisanship got as little coverage as possible, the change was announced Tuesday with the rule only being posted on the Federal Register on the Friday after Thanksgiving. The pre-holiday news dump was largely successful as the development was buried over the long weekend. But the proposed change, which would severely limit the ability of advocacy groups to gain the crucial advantage afforded by those with tax-exempt-status, should not go unchallenged. The shift would essentially legalize the attempt by some in the IRS to target activists that came under fire back in the spring. Changing the rules in this manner is merely another effort by liberals to regulate and suppress political speech.
At the height of the scandal in which IRS officials indefensibly singled out groups associated with the Tea Party or other conservative causes and faith groups for delays and denials, there were many liberals who argued that the problem was only that the government had been sloppy about the manner in which some activists were flagged. They claimed the real problem was not the way in which the government discriminated against some of those seeking non-profit status but the entire idea that any of those involved in advocacy on issues should be granted protection from the tax collectors. The goal, they said, should be to prevent groups with political purposes from becoming non-profits.
Critics of the existing rules were right when they noted that the old rules were vague. A 1959 government ruling allowed an organization set up under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code to have the status of social welfare groups “if it is primarily engaged in promoting in some way the common good and general welfare of the people of the community.” That has been interpreted as letting groups spend a substantial portion of their funds on political advocacy, albeit after undergoing a subjective evaluation by the IRS that, as we now know, was tilted heavily against conservatives. Greater clarity was needed, but rather than merely eliminate the biases, what the IRS is proposing is to alter the rules to make it difficult, if not impossible for groups that aim at promoting political change—be it from a right-wing or a left-wing point of view—to become non-profits.
That might seem fair to some, but it will go a long way toward silencing grass roots groups that cannot build upon the advantages built into the system for other players on the political stage such as unions or business associations that will not be affected by the new IRS policy.
As even a liberal outlet like NPR noted, in one of the few stories published or broadcast about the issue in the last week, this will have a disproportionate impact on conservative advocacy which is far more dependent on 501(c) groups than their rivals on the left. But, like the various attempts to promulgate campaign finance “reform,” the real object is suppression of political speech.
Critics of allowing advocacy groups to gain non-profit status speak of their efforts as essentially theft from the public treasury, just as they regard tax cuts which allow citizens to keep more of the money they have earned to be a gift from Uncle Sam. But such arguments look at the problem from the wrong end of the telescope. The real issue here is not whether there is something wrong with more grass roots and other advocacy groups being allowed to fund raise and not be forced to reveal their donors. Rather, it is the liberal panic that ensued after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down efforts by the government to ban certain kinds of political speech under the guise of campaign reform in their 2010 Citizens United decision. That ruling allowed more individuals and groups to make their voices heard and led to an increase in the number of social welfare groups that spoke out on the issues. The IRS scandal was part of a government effort to repress that rising tide of activism. The new rules will therefore complete the work the so-called rogues of Cincinnati started.
The IRS policy would put a crimp into conservative efforts until a new way around the rules is found, as is inevitable with such regulations. But the victim here isn’t conservatism; it’s democracy. Those who delight in making life difficult for Tea Party activists should understand that giving the IRS this kind of power over speech will ultimately hamper liberal grass roots groups as much as those of conservatives. Participation by citizen groups—even those we disagree with—should be protected, not made more onerous. These new rules, which will not go into effect until after the next election, should not be allowed to go into effect. The real and ongoing IRS scandal is the way the agency has been used to regulate political activity. That isn’t the job of the IRS or any branch of government, and American democracy will be more secure once such efforts are outlawed.