by Kimberely A. Strassel
President Obama keeps claiming that he had no knowledge of the Internal Revenue Service’s abusive muzzling of conservative groups. That line is hard to swallow given that his Treasury and IRS are back at it—this time in broad daylight.
In the media blackout of Thanksgiving week, the Treasury Department dumped a new proposal to govern the political activity of 501(c)(4) groups. The administration claims this rule is needed to clarify confusing tax laws. Hardly. The rule is the IRS’s new targeting program—only this time systematic, more effective, and with the force of law.
That this rule was meant to crack down on the White House’s political opponents was never in doubt. What is new is the growing concern by House Ways and Means Committee investigators that the regulation was reverse-engineered—designed to isolate and shut down the same tea party groups victimized in the first targeting round. Treasury appears to have combed through those tea party applications, compiled all the groups’ main activities, and then restricted those activities in the new rule.
“The committee has reviewed thousands of tax exempt applications,” says House Ways & Means Chairman Dave Camp. “The new regulation so closely mirrors the abused tea-party group applications, it leads me to question if this new proposed regulation is simply another form of targeting.”
Here’s how it works. To get or keep tax-exempt status, 501(c)(4) organizations must devote a majority of their work to their “primary” social-welfare purpose. Most tea party groups were set up with a primary purpose of educating Americans on pressing problems—the size of government, the erosion of the Constitution—and did so mainly via nonpartisan voter guides, speakers forums, pamphlets or voter-registration drives.
What the proposed Treasury/IRS regulation would do is to re-categorize all these efforts as “political activity”—thereby making it all but impossible for tea party groups to qualify for 501(c)(4) status. Say an outfit’s primary purpose is educating voters on our unsustainable debt, which it does mainly with a guide explaining the problem and politicians’ voting records. Under the new rule, that guide is now “political activity” (rather than “social welfare”), which likely loses the group tax-exempt status.
The rule, in other words, is not designed to provide helpful “guidance” on allowable activities. It was designed, rather, as Mr. Camp explains, “to put tea party groups out of business.”
What makes this targeting more obvious is that the Obama Treasury rule only applies to 501(c)(4) groups. The ultra-liberal League of Women Voters Education Fund is registered as a 501(c)(3)—one of those “charities” supposedly held to the strictest IRS standards on politicking. Yet it brags on its website that it holds “candidate debates and forums,” and that its “educational activities” include “understanding candidate views and ballot initiatives.”
The League will continue to be able to do its voter guides and registrations and candidate forums. Yet under this new rule, any conservative social-welfare organization that attempts to do the same will likely lose its tax-exempt status. Nor does the new rule apply the biggest spenders of all in politics—unions, which are registered as 501(c)(5)s. The only category muzzled is the one recently flooded by conservative groups that Democrats fear in the 2014 election.
Consider the timing. This “proposed guidance”—while technically pending public comment—puts conservative groups on immediate notice that it could be enforced at any moment. It is clearly designed to have a chilling effect on any group gearing up for next year’s midterms, just as the first round of targeting was designed to dampen conservative participation in the 2010 and 2012 elections.
Democrats are daily directing government against their political opponents—via Congress, the SEC, the FEC. Yet IRS Acting Commissioner Danny Werfel wants Americans to think this latest IRS rule is just about providing “clarity.” And the White House continues to insist that it was unaware of the previous targeting.
The political insult is that President Obama is using his new targeting rule to wiggle out of liability for the last round. The same president who in May was “outraged” by the IRS’s actions now says it was all just some confusion over tax law (which his new rule fixes). He told Chris Matthews last week that the media had hyped what was a few poor IRS souls in Cincinnati who were “trying to streamline what is a difficult law to interpret . . . And they’ve got a list, and suddenly everybody’s outraged.”
Everybody was outraged to discover the IRS was secretly targeting the president’s political opponents. They might be more outraged that the White House is now using the IRS to do the same thing in the brazen light of day.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Kimberely A. Strassel is an author and member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal.