White House press secretary Jay Carney said pending new Internal Revenue Service rules on political activity of nonprofits would not muzzle political speech and wouldn't target one side of the political spectrum unfairly, despite drawing criticism from both the right and the left.
“The fact is that this action was recommended by the independent inspector general who had already looked into some the matters that caused all the concern that we saw law year on these issues,” Carney said in response to a question from TheBlaze during his press briefing.
The proposed regulation changes stand in the shadow of still unanswered questions about the IRS' acknowledgment that it gave extra scrutiny to conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status. The IRS admitted to targeting certain groups whose names included words like “Tea Party,” “patriot” and “9/12 Project."
About 122,000 people gave comments on the IRS' plan to curb the political activity of certain nonprofit organizations by Thursday's deadline, the Washington Post reported. The plan has drawn opposition from Tea Party groups and the American Civil Liberties Union alike.
Former Federal Election Commission members Bradley Smith and Hans Von Spakovsky also voiced their opposition, as did famed First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Under the proposed new rules, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit group would not be 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 regulations would classify presidential nominees such as judicial nominees or cabinet officials, as candidates.
The inspector general report that was largely scathing of the IRS did recommend, as Carney said, that the agency reach formal rules to avoid uneven enforcement in the future.
“We believe this could be due to the lack of specific guidance on how to determine the 'primary activity” of an ... organization,” the inspector general report stated. “Treasury Regulations state that [tax-exempt] organizations should have social welfare as their 'primary activity'; however, the regulations do not define how to measure whether social welfare is an organization’s 'primary activity.'”
Carney said members of Congress have also called for clarity on the rules.
“I can tell you from the beginning in 2010, Treasury and the IRS received requests from members of Congress to consider engaging in rule-making and clarify the rules regarding these organizations,” Carney said. “As the Treasury Department has said, the rule change does not restrict any form of political speech. These regulations do not favor any individual or political party or group. The regulation applies to all organizations, regardless of political affiliation."
During the 2010 election cycle, some Democratic lawmakers including New York Sen. Charles Schumer and then-Sen. Max Baucus of Montana demanded intensified scrutiny of tax-exempt groups engaged in politics.
On Thursday, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) proposed two amendments in the Senate Judiciary Committee to curb the IRS' ability to target political activity. Both measures were killed by the Democratic majority on a party-line vote.
“Free speech is not a partisan issue. The IRS has no business meddling with the First Amendment rights of Americans,” Cruz said. “Rather than further stifling free speech, the IRS and the Department of Justice should provide the American people with all the facts surrounding the IRS’ targeting of certain organizations based on their political activity. We should all agree the IRS should not be used as a tool for partisan warfare.”
Cruz's first proposal would have specifically prohibited IRS employees from targeting individuals or groups targeting anyone or group based on their political views, liberal or conservative. It would have made it a crime for an IRS employee to willfully discriminate against groups based solely on politics.
Cruz also proposed to amend the Internal Revenue Code to use the Federal Election Commission's definition to determine whether an organization is engaging in political activity, and to keep the IRS out of such matters.
The Democratic majority on the Senate Judiciary Committee rejected both proposals on a party-line vote.
“Nearly nine months ago, President Obama declared the IRS’s illegal targeting of conservative groups ‘intolerable and inexcusable,’ yet his administration has authored a new rule to specifically limit free speech for many of those groups, which are classified as ‘social welfare’ organizations,” Cruz said.
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