By Melanie Batley
WASHINGTON D.C. – Top Republicans in the House and the Senate insist the Obama administration is using new proposed IRS rules to continue its “harassment and intimidation” of conservative groups, and they are calling on the new IRS Commissioner to abandon the plans.
In a joint letter issued Wednesday to IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell also contend that, much like the agency’s targeting of tea party groups which stifled their influence in the last two election cycles, the latest round of rules are a new attempt to silence them in the run-up to the 2014 elections.
The rule, which hasnâ€™t been finalized, could limit spending from outside groups officially classified as non-profit social welfare organizations.
The groups spent more than $310 million over the two-year 2012 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign finance. Some $265 million of that — about 85 percent — was from organizations that align with Republicans, according to the watchdog group.
“It is our view that finalizing this proposed rule would make intimidation and harassment of the administration’s political opponents the official policy of the IRS and would allow the Obama Administration to use your agency as a partisan tool,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter signed by nine other colleagues.
The new IRS rules would prevent 501(c)(4) tax-exempt groups from running television ads, organizing get-out-the-vote efforts and voter registration drives, and handing out literature on political issues.
The GOP lawmakers contend the new rules amount to an assault by the administration on First Amendment rights.
“You are now left with a simple choice,” they wrote. “Reform the IRS and root out any hint of corruption or targeting of political opponents, starting by withdrawing this proposed rule, or allow the administration to use the agency as a means to infringe on the constitutionally protected right to free speech.”
In the letter the lawmakers also say that congressional investigators have uncovered evidence that the draft rules had been under consideration for at least two years, “suggesting a political motivation well outside the bounds of the agency’s mission.”
The IRS has asked for public comment on whether the same definition should apply to labor unions and business groups. Many Democrats say the IRS should adopt a strict definition that follows the word â€œexclusivelyâ€ in the tax code.
Meanwhile, a House Ways and Means Committee investigation is underway this week into the IRS targeting scandal. Koskinen told reporters Wednesday after the hearing that the singling out of conservative organizations for heightened scrutiny would be “intolerable,” and vowed the IRS is not doing so now.
“It won’t happen going forward,” Koskinen said, according to Fox News. “And to the extent that people suffered accordingly, I apologize for that.”
On Thursday, GOP super lawyer Cleta Mitchell told representatives that the systematic effort to delay the processing of grass-roots groups applications for nonprofit status continues to occur.
The proposed rule being discussed would define political activity broadly, including voter registration drives and voter guides. The proposal has drawn more than 22,000 comments so far, mostly opposing the change.
The proposed rule doesnâ€™t say how much political involvement would be enough to disqualify groups from obtaining and keeping social welfare status, and thatâ€™s an issue the IRS would have to resolve before it implemented the change.
Koskinen also said he would cooperate with all six separate investigations into the scandal.
President Barack Obama said in an interview Sunday with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly that the targeting was inappropriate but insisted there was no corruption in the agency.
“There was some boneheaded decision out of a local office,” Obama said, adding that there was “not even a smidgen of corruption.”
Since the proposed changes were announced in November, conservative groups have been vociferous in their opposition, saying they are the administration’s latest attempt to silence them.
Mitchell, who represents tea party groups that were targeted by the agency for scrutiny, said last week that the new rules demonstrate that the IRS is a “rogue, lawless agency” and “the enforcement arm for the Democratic Party.”