The Obama administration announced last Tuesday that the IRS is publishing new rules restricting the activities of nonprofit groups organized under section 501(c)4 of the IRS code, groups commonly called “c-4s.”
If anyone thought the IRS scandal of last summer would cause the Obama administration to pull back its assault on constitutionally protected free speech, well, guess again. The attacks will continue. The reason is very simple: The leftists now running our federal government are afraid of citizens trying to educate their fellow Americans, and those educational efforts will be discouraged and, if need be, suppressed.
The new assault is aimed at “social welfare organizations,” tax-exempt groups that are allowed to engage in public educational activities that stop short of endorsing or promoting candidates for public office.
The new rules for these groups will include prohibitions on public educational efforts that are within 60 days of political campaign periods. For example, groups will have to scrub their websites of the informational material regardless of how factual it may be – it cannot be available to the public during the 60-day period leading to a general election or a 30-day period before a primary. The rule will apply not only to “issue publications” but to blog posts, newsletters, announcements of events – anything that mentions a candidate by name. Presumably, the c-4 cannot even wish an incumbent public official “Happy Birthday” if he is a candidate for office.
Yet, strangely, the new rules will not offer “additional clarity” on the one specific subject that would actually be of help to nonprofits trying to obey the law. IRS rules will continue to be silent on the question of what percentage of an organization’s budget may be spent on political activities without engendering a challenge by the IRS that such activity has crossed the invisible line that now permits such activity as long as it is not the “primary” work of the group. That will continue to be a guessing game, and the IRS will still interpret the standards subjectively.
No one should be surprised by this new move to stifle constitutional freedom of speech. It is in line with previous IRS targeting of conservative nonprofits, and it likely signals a broader national campaign by the left to clip the wings of conservative groups. We should expect to see state-level efforts that mimic or supplement this IRS effort.
Now, of course, the IRS will attempt to justify the new rules as “guidance” aimed at “clarifying” the law for the benefit of c-4 groups themselves. There are at least two reasons no one should be fooled by this claim. First, laughter is the only possible reaction when a government official says, “We’re from the IRS and we’re here to help you.” Anyone who believes that probably believes Obamacare will lower their health insurance costs and Iran wants nuclear power only for peaceful purposes.
The second reason this is clearly not a mere “clarification” of existing law is that Congress has rejected this change when offered as legislation. Again we see the Obama administration trying to achieve by a unilateral administrative rule what it could not get approved by Congress.
It is small consolation that the IRS will follow the normal rule-making procedures and go through a public to comment period of several months before proceeding to finalize them. No one should expect that public criticism will persuade Obama’s IRS to abandon the project.
Yes, there is always a case to be made for new rules that “clarify” old rules, and if we lived in a different era we might withhold judgment until we see the final product. Some people will hold out hope that the new rules will in fact offer helpful clarity on what constitutes “crossing the line” into political advocacy. But in reality, there is no basis whatsoever tor trusting the Obama administration to enforce any such rule impartially. We all know it will simply be one more weapon in the IRS toolbox for harassing and intimidating conservative nonprofits.
Many are speculating that the hidden purpose of the new rules is to drive c-4 organizations’ donors away from c-4’s and into 527 groups, where donor anonymity is not protected. Do conservative donors have any reason to desire anonymity? You bet. Just think of the possibilities in the words “IRS audit” and you get the picture.
In a democracy, tyranny arrives in small steps, not in one giant sledgehammer. In Obama’s disregard for the rule of law and his love of rule by administrative decree, we are witnessing those small steps. This IRS step is especially alarming because it strikes at citizens’ ability to engage in public discourse on public issues.