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The federal government is, for now, walking back from new regulations proposed by the IRS that would have, according to critics, enshrined in the law the agency’s well-documented discrimination against and attacks on conservative charities.
In a speech this week at the National Press Club, Internal Revenue Service Commissioner John Koskinen announced a delay, or more, in the proposal, which would have, according to former U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., banned those organizations from evening wishing “an incumbent public official ‘Happy Birthday’ if he is a candidate for office.”
Koskinen explained that “more than 150,000 comments” had been received by the IRS on the proposed rules.
“That’s a record for an IRS rulemaking comment period. In fact, if you take all the comments on all Treasury and IRS draft proposals over the last seven years and double that number, you come close to the number of comments we are now beginning to review and analyze,” he continued. “It’s going to take us a while to sort through all those comments, hold a public hearing, possibly repropose a draft regulation and get more public comments.
“This means that it is unlikely we will be able to complete this process before the end of the year.”
The proposed rules would have created all sorts of limits and hurdles for organizations registered under the 501(c)4 tax status to express any message. It would have, however, exempted many of the left-leaning organizations across America, leaving it to appear that conservative speech was being targeted.
In the run-up to the 2012 election, the IRS delayed the tax status applications of many conservative organizations, demanding answers to questions such as what they would say in the future, and what was the content of their prayers.
Lawsuits have been filed over the discriminatory behavior, and attempts by federal officials to blame low-level office functionaries for the strategy have failed, with suspicions that the White House may have been directly involved.
The American Family Association, which had encouraged people to protest to the IRS over the proposed rules, told its supporters, “Your actions have compelled the IRS to put off implementing regulations proposed by the Obama administration that were intended to shut down distribution of voter guides and legislative scorecards, holding get-out-the-vote campaigns and even voter registration activities by AFA and other conservative groups.”
The rules being proposed recently were the subject of one of Tancredo’s commentaries, where he explained what was proposed to happen.
“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,” he wrote. “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,” he said.
“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,” he said.
“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,” he explained.
“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,” he said.
In fact, Koskinen said, “While I was not involved in the issuance of this draft proposal, because it happened before I was confirmed as commissioner, I believe it is extremely important to make this area of regulation as clear as possible. Not only does that help the IRS properly enforce the law, but clearer regulations will also give a better roadmap to applicants, and will help those that already have 501(c)(4) status properly administer their organizations without unnecessary fears of losing their tax-exempt status.”
Koskinen also said he would see to it that the IRS treats taxpayers fairly.
“It doesn’t make any difference who they are, what organizations they belong to, or whom they voted for in the last election. None of that matters to us at the IRS. We will do about one million audits of individual taxpayers this year. Some who get audited may be Democrats, some may be Republicans, and others may be something else altogether. But they will all have one thing in common: They’re being contacted by us because there was something on their tax returns that needed follow up.”
While the IRS has admitted that it inappropriately targeted conservatives, it hasn’t yet answered all the questions Congress has about the campaign.
Rep. Darrell, R-Calif., said that the IRS practice of “delaying a conservative organization a determination on a tax-exempt application for years is nothing more than an effective denial of the application.”
He said the proposed new IRS rules constituted an attempt to bring tax-exempt 501(c)3 and 501(c)4 organizations under Federal Election Commission laws. It would mean that normally accepted issue advocacy undertaken by conservative tax-exempt organizations would be seen as an attempt to elect or defeat a political candidate.
“In FEC litigation, there is clear case law distinguishing issue advocacy from partisan political activity,” noted James R. Mason, III, senior counsel of the Home School Legal Defense Association.
He said the real goal of the proposed IRS regulations was not to have FEC rules determine acceptable and unacceptable activity of tax-exempt organizations but to empower the IRS to administer election laws.