The public comment period ends Thursday on proposed IRS rule changes that it says provide greater clarity in what activity is allowed in non-profit organizations but critics allege it is an assault on free speech and association that would essentially codify the brutal treatment aimed at conservative organizations over the past few years.
Administration officials have remained very quiet publicly about the suggested rule changes, but over 100,000 comments have been filed in response to the plan.
Former Federal Elections Commission Chairman Bradley A. Smith is now chairman of the Center for Competitive Politics, which filed comments criticizing the proposed rules. Smith says the IRS is using the veneer of clarity to make life difficult for political activists.
“Essentially, the IRS wants to change and vastly expand the definition of what qualifies as political activity, to include things like non-partisan voter registration or talking about issues. 501 (c) 4 (status) limits groups that are engaged in candidate races. They want it to include talk about the budget or offshore oil drilling or green energy or whatever it might be,” said Smith.
“By expanding greatly the definition of political activity, that will bring a number of groups out of (c) 4 and into political committee status, where they have much more reporting burdens and they have to publicly disclose who their donors are, which the Supreme Court has normally said groups don’t have to do,” said Smith.
If the rules are implemented, Smith says life could be much different for politically active groups from the National Rifle Association to the Sierra Club, but he says others will feel the pain even more.
“It also includes many, many small groups and a lot of folks in the tea party and other small groups like that fell what the IRS has done is they said, ‘What were we trying to get them for a year ago or two years ago. Let’s just codify that and we can do it that way,'” said Smith.
Smith says he believes some at the IRS genuinely want to add clarity to the process of properly designating organizations for tax purposes, but he says there is abundant evidence that the specific proposals and timing of the changes expose a political agenda.
“For the last four years, there’s been a steady stream of letters and complaints by high-ranking Democratic officeholders in Congress. Senator Levin, Senator Durbin, Senator Franken, Senator Bennet, we can name a whole number who have been pushing the IRS to crack down on various groups, to investigate them and to investigate their tax status. Often they have named specific conservative groups by name. The president himself has made some public speeches in which he’s called these groups a threat to our democracy,” said Smith.
“There’s strong evidence to believe that part of the reason the IRS proposed these rules and is acting in this way right now because of partisan pressure put on them by Democratic officeholders,” said Smith.
Smith also believes the IRS is wading into waters best policed by the Federal Elections Commission (FEC). He says Congress explicitly created the FEC in 1974 to be a bipartisan commission. By law, there are an equal number of Republicans and Democrats on the panel so one party cannot ram through its agenda. Smith says Democrats tried to enact these rule changes through the FEC but couldn’t get majority support. So they turned to the IRS instead.
“That’s exactly why we shouldn’t put it to the IRS, because whether they’re doing it because of this or not , it looks that way to people. It looks like a partisan power grab by Democrats to harm their Republican rivals,” said Smith. “I think the IRS is going into an area where we really don’t want our tax collectors to go. One of the articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon was that he was using the IRS to harass his political enemies. It’s very important that we keep the IRS out of politics.”
So is this public comment time a mere pause in the IRS pursuit of these new rules or might the huge number of concerned comments actually achieve their goal?
“They can change minds. That’s why the comment period is required by law. It’s usually not so much a political popularity contest but thoughtful comments pointing out some of the problems with the rules do change minds. The agency is required to address those, and if it doesn’t explain why it ignored those comments it’s decision could be overturned in court,” said Smith.
Smith says a final decision could some within a month or a few months. Even if they are approved, he suspects there would not be enough time to fully implement the rule changes in time to be enforced for the 2014 campaign.