In the shadow of the scandal over the targeting of Tea Party and other conservative groups, the Internal Revenue Service on Tuesday announced new regulations curbing the political activity of tax-exempt groups.
The new restrictions would prohibit such groups from backing candidates, making political pronouncements 60 days before an election and participating in get-out-the-vote drives.
Advocates for conservative organizations litigating against the IRS' scrutiny say the new rules are an attack on free speech.
“It is never a positive when the government gets involved in regulating political speech,” Cleta Mitchell, a Washington-based attorney, told TheBlaze. “Remember the first five words of the First Amendment: 'Congress shall make no law.'”
Mitchell is representing True the Vote and other conservative groups suing the IRS over targeting, which the agency has admitted to.
Mitchell said the rules should be more narrow and defined.
“If you think this somehow will stop the IRS from arbitrary enforcement, labor unions spent $4.4 billion between 2006 and 2011 on political activities,” Mitchell said. “Do you think the IRS has done any enforcement about that? I don't think so.”
The regulations, being placed on the federal registry, likely won't take effect for up to a year and are now open to public comment.
“This is part of ongoing efforts within the IRS that are improving our work in the tax-exempt area," said IRS Acting Commissioner Danny Werfel, who took the helm after previous commissioner Steven Miller resigned over the targeting scandal earlier this year. “Once final, this proposed guidance will continue moving us forward and provide clarity for this important segment of exempt organizations.”
The conservative American Center for Law and Justice is representing 41 different organizations suing over IRS abuse.
“These proposed new regulations put the First Amendment rights of Americans at even greater risk,” ACLJ chief counsel Jay Sekulow said a statement. “This is a feeble attempt by the Obama administration to justify its own wrongdoing with the IRS targeting of conservative and Tea Party groups. Instead of holding those responsible for the unlawful targeting scheme accountable for their actions, the Obama administration is determined to further limit the free speech of Americans by attempting to change constitutional practices that are decades old. With this move, the Obama administration opens a new front in its war against political dissent. We will file comments with the IRS opposing these new regulations.”
The IRS guidelines concentrate on 501(c)(4) tax exempt non-profit groups. These groups, classified as social welfare groups, are allowed to engage in political activity on the basis of educating the public. However, politics cannot be their primary goal. Larger groups such as American Crossroad on the right and Priorities USA on the left spent millions in the 2012 election.
From 2010 through 2012, the IRS gave extra scrutiny to numerous Tea Party and conservative organizations applying for 501(c)(4) status. IRS officials admitted it in May 2013.
Under the proposed new rules, a nonprofit group would not eligible for tax-exempt status if it is clearly identified with a candidate or political party; communicates with or advocates for a candidate within 60 days of a general election and within 30 days of a general election; engages in voter registration drives or get out the vote drives, or hold events for candidates. Further, these groups will be required to report expenditures to the Federal Elections Commission.
The rules won't be rushed, Assistant Treasury Secretary for Tax Policy Mark J. Mazur said.
“We are committed to getting this right before issuing final guidance that may affect a broad group of organizations,” Mazur said in a statement. “It will take time to work through the regulatory process and carefully consider all public feedback as we strive to ensure that the standards for tax-exemption are clear and can be applied consistently.”
Members of Congress also weighed in with skepticism.
"There continues to be an ongoing investigation, with many documents yet to be uncovered, into how the IRS systematically targeted and abused conservative leaning groups," House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) said in a statement. "Before rushing forward with new rules, especially ones that appear to make it harder to engage in public debate, I would hope Treasury would let all the facts come out first – something they could achieve by fully cooperating with Congress in the investigation. This smacks of the administration trying to shutdown potential critics."
Both the House Ways and Means Committee and the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee are investigating the IRS targeting scandal.
“This new effort by the Obama Administration to limit traditional advocacy efforts by social welfare organizations will have a much more profound impact on grassroots and community organizations than on the well-heeled groups it supposedly targets," House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said in a statement. "The fact that the Administration's new effort only applies to social welfare organizations -- and not powerful unions or business groups -- underscores that this is a crass political effort by the Administration to get what political advantage they can, when they can."