All Americans have the right to expect the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to operate in a fair, apolitical and appropriate manner. As such, the direct admission by the IRS of having favored one political party over another has been terribly damaging to the public’s faith in our democracy. The politicization of the IRS must not be allowed to continue.
For a time, it seemed the media lost interest and the story faded from the front pages. But the day after Thanksgiving, the IRS issued a “notice of proposed rulemaking” – to effectively double down on the strategy of targeting political opponents. This notice came just days after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid invoked the so-called “nuclear option” in the U.S. Senate, breaking more than 200 years of Senate tradition to suppress the rights of the minority party. Heading into an all-important election year, this “permanent damage” to the institution, to quote one Senate Democrat, helped set the stage for what the IRS later made perfectly clear: this administration will stop at nothing to maintain its grip on power.
The new IRS rule seeks to broadly expand the definition of “candidate-related political activity” for all 501(c)(4) nonprofit organizations. Under this definition, social welfare organizations would face severe limitations on their participation in activities such as get-out-the-vote efforts, voter registration and education, communication that mentions a political candidate or party, or any events involving candidates. Regardless if these groups are to the left or right of the political spectrum, or entirely nonpartisan, this rule will prevent numerous Americans from exercising their constitutional right to participate in the political process.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, these proposed regulations threaten “to discourage or sterilize an enormous amount of political discourse in America.” It is certainly hard to envision any good can come from the government getting involved in the regulation of political speech. But during an election year, it seems that those in power will stop at nothing to protect their status – even when it means stepping upon the constitutional rights of their fellow citizens.
Majority Leader Reid recently defended these proposed regulations by offering a series of broad-brushed statements about why Americans supposedly do not like 501(c)(4) organizations, their policies or their financial backers. He claimed these nonprofit groups are deliberately “going after people who are trying to improve the country.” But his characterization of social welfare organizations as being intentionally harmful to our nation simply because they maintain a different political ideology is both unfair and demonstrably false.
In his recent comments, Majority Leader Reid went on to specifically accuse David and Charles Koch of “trying to buy the country” by participating in the political process, as if one’s First Amendment rights should only be respected when they align with a certain political party. I imagine if the tables were turned, he would find such statements about left-leaning groups to be quite offensive. No matter one’s political affiliations, the First Amendment rights of all Americans deserve to be respected and defended.
Last week, I joined Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, and more than 30 of my Senate colleagues, in introducing legislation to put a stop to this blatant political targeting at the IRS. Our bill will return the IRS standards and definitions to exactly how they were written on Jan. 1, 2010 – the date prior to when the agency’s inappropriate targeting began.
Newly-appointed IRS Commissioner John Koskinen has pledged to restore the public’s trust in the IRS. The best way to accomplish this is to immediately put a stop to the proposed 501(c)(4) rule changes. This would make it clear that the IRS will no longer tolerate crackdowns on free speech and offer American taxpayers hope that their faith in this powerful, but broken institution may one day be restored.