GOP Leaders Urge New IRS Commissioner to Drop Proposal That's 'an Affront to Free Speech'

In a letter yesterday to IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, House and Senate Republican leaders called on the agency to drop a proposed rule that would clarify who qualifies for a 501(c)(4) exemption as a social welfare organization.

That part of the tax code was central to the agency's previous targeting of conservative groups. The proposed guidance was issued in November by Koskinen's predecessor, Acting IRS Commissioner Danny Werfel.

The proposed guidance defines the term “candidate-related political activity,” and would amend current regulations by indicating that the promotion of social welfare does not include this type of activity, according to the IRS, which said the intention is to "reduce the need to conduct fact-intensive inquiries by replacing this test with more definitive rules."

Activities that would disqualify an organization seeking 501(c)(4) status include "communications that expressly advocate for a clearly identified political candidate or candidates of a political party," "any contribution that is recognized under campaign finance law as a reportable contribution," hosting a candidate at an event within 60 days of a general election, and voter registration or “get-out-the-vote” drives.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), House Republican Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.), House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.), House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rodgers (R-Ky.), Senate Finance Committee ranking Republican Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Senate Appropriations Committee ranking Republican Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) signed the letter to the IRS chief protesting the rule as a violation of Obama critics' free speech.

“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.  This would be a serious error, especially in light of the recent track record of intimidation at the IRS. It would also cement your reputation as someone who is unable or unwilling to restore the public’s faith in this important agency,” said the letter.

“This rule would redefine political activity so broadly that grass-roots groups all across the country will likely be forced to shut down simply for engaging in the kind of non-partisan educational activities” their tax designation was designed to support, the letter continued. “In many cases, these are the same groups that were already victimized by the IRS’s inappropriate targeting.”

They reminded the new IRS leader that now was the time to decide whether "to use the agency as a means to infringe on the constitutionally protected right to free speech.”

“One of the reasons you have been appointed to a five-year term is so that you will be protected from undue political pressure. So, we urge you to take a stand against this kind of intimidation, abandon this proposed rule, and make it clear to a nervous public that your agency will no longer engage in government-sanctioned crackdowns on speech."

The lawmakers also stressed that the rule is opposed by diverse groups ranging from the ACLU to the Chamber of Commerce.

“This proposed rule is an affront to free speech itself,” the letter said. “It poses a serious and undeniable threat to the ability of ordinary Americans to freely participate in the democratic process."