GOPs Try to Block IRS Rule That Threatens to Shut Down Conservative 501(c)(4)s

WASHINGTON -- Thirty-nine Republican senators introduced a bill today to block the Internal Revenue Service from issuing a rule that would narrow the definition of who qualifies for a 501(c)(4) exemption as a social welfare organization.

The Stop Targeting of Political Beliefs by the IRS Act, which also passed out of a House committee, would freeze the finalization of the rule for one year and restore the 501(c)(4) standards and definitions that were in place before conservative groups started to come under extra scrutiny in 2010.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said on the Senate floor today that he learned over the Thanksgiving break "that the IRS had diagnosed the problem and offered its regulatory solution despite the fact that the multiple investigations were far from complete."

"On Friday, November 29th,  and without warning, the IRS published a proposed rule that would restrict the activities of 501(c)(4) organizations, effectively limit their speech, and curtail their civic participation – bringing a whole new meaning to Black Friday," Flake said. "The rule singles out the same conservative groups that were previously targeted by the IRS and threatens to shut them down. It further attempts to legitimatize the targeting of organizations that hold ideological views in contrast to the administration’s."

"It should be no surprise since critics of these conservative organizations have openly called for their extinction."

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.

Flake said the IRS wants "to force 501(c)(4) organizations into ill-fitting structures devised more appropriately for political committees in order to require the disclosure of conservative supporters."

"The IRS and the White House claim innocently that the proposed rule is meant to clear up confusion about how to process the applications of 501(c)(4) organizations involved in political activities," the senator continued. "…Before the IRS began flagging the applications of conservative groups in February 2010, these types of applications were being processed within three months. Email traffic between IRS employees shows that the applications of conservative organizations were not flagged out of confusion but rather because of media attention and potential interest to Washington."

"So let’s call this rule what it is – an attempt to silence the voices of conservative organizations."

Co-sponsors of the bill, introduced by Flake and Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas), include Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), and Republican Conference Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.).

"To be clear – 501(c)(4)s are permitted to engage in the political process and in political discourse. And they should continue to be allowed to do so. But this regulation seeks to limit their participation in a host of advocacy and education activities, even nonpartisan voter registration and education drives," Flake said.

"These activities have a clear role in promoting civic engagement and social welfare – the precise purpose of the 501(c)(4) structure. Unfortunately, the rule would suppress conservative voices by forcing organizations to quit these activities or be shut down," he added. "Such a gag order on conservative groups has been long-desired by this administration."