EDITORIAL: IRS should keep its mitts off 'political activity'

It remains beyond dispute that there is much wrong with American campaign-finance law.

So much of the so-called dark money. So little disclosure. Political campaign finances have entered a “black ops” stage in which tens of millions of dollars are being spent each year by faceless organizations.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, we seem to know little about activist organizations and less about the people cutting the checks. The sum of such ignorance is a terrible weight on the integrity of American elections. How can we possibly know our candidates when we have little clue who is spending money to support them?

We can think of just one thing worse than the current state of campaign-finance affairs, and that is having the Internal Revenue Service propose “fixes” to the system.

The IRS has created new rules governing “political activity” as they apply to non-profit organizations designated with a 501c4 status. Among several changes, this “initial guidance” from the tax-collecting agency would forbid certain communications by the non-profits during an election cycle, especially those that identify a certain candidate.

In addition, the IRS definitions governing “political activity” would include voter-registration drives, grants to political groups, events touting a certain candidate and distributing material on a candidate’s behalf.

There are problems with this. Let’s move from the less obvious ones to the painfully clear ones.

However well-intentioned, such rules tread dangerously close to inhibiting free speech, especially as that speech has been defined by the high court in Citizens United.

The greater problem, however, is the widespread concern that such rule changes in fact are not well-intentioned but constitute yet another IRS attempt to throttle conservative non-profit groups.

The investigations into the IRS’ years-long campaign of harassment of “tea party” non-profits are still ongoing. The entire trail of responsibility for the agency’s malicious behavior has not yet been uncovered — although we know now that it extends far beyond the handful of “front line” personnel in Cincinnati who initially were served up for sacrifice.

Perhaps some time in the (likely distant) future, the IRS can claim some neutral ground from which to issue ground rules for non-profit groups conducting political activity. That time is not now.

There are threats to the integrity of the American system of elections. And then there are threats.

“Dark money” in our elections is a real threat. Even in a world in which ruthless activists use their opponents’ donor lists to harass contributors simply for the “crime” of participating in politics, disclosure is vital.

Just as vital, however, is the expectation that the great machinery of the federal government should not be abused from within for partisan advantage.

Between 2010 and the 2012 presidential election, a handful of liberal-oriented non-profit groups were briefly inconvenienced by the IRS before being approved and sent along on their happy way. Meanwhile, hundreds of conservative groups were held up for months and years. Some still await IRS approval.

Whatever one calls that, it is not the behavior of a politically neutral organization.

Neither is it the behavior of an agency that, at this point, should be making rules governing “political activity” of any kind.

12/04/2013 - 10:48am