New IRS Rules Called 'Campaign Finance Regulation Disguised as Tax Regulation'

WASHINGTON – A panel of experts said the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) targeting of conservative groups is just the latest in a series of attacks against political opponents of President Obama that date all the way back to 2008.

Kimberley Strassel, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, said the IRS targeting scandal is only the latest type of political attack that ties directly to Obama’s campaign style before his presidency.

“The best way to look at this is as a continuum of a very long and determined political strategy that dates back to 2008 and a man named Barack Obama," Strassel said.

Speaking at the Heritage Foundation on Friday, Strassel argued that “this is a president and his team of political operatives who have always understood the power of speech, but more importantly, the power of denying it to their political opponents.”

While the Obama administration has blamed the targeting of conservative organizations on confusion among IRS officials about how to apply the rules governing 501(c)(4) nonprofit organizations, Strassel said that the “IRS officials were hyper aware of the political environment.” She referenced an email from an IRS employee in the Cincinnati field office which read “recent media attention to this type of organization indicates to me that it’s a high-profile case.”

Strassel said Obama’s main strategy is to attack groups supporting his political opponents by questioning the legal basis of their practices. The rhetoric of “shadowy conservative groups” pushed by Obama and the pro-regulation community had proliferated before the IRS scandal, creating a stigma that anonymous political donations are inherently dubious. This created suspicion in these organizations that led to the targeting of the conservative groups by the IRS without the need of a direct order from the president, Strassel said.

“The president didn’t need a telephone, he had a megaphone,” she said.

Last November, the IRS proposed changing its rules governing the political speech of 501(c)(4)s. Such groups face few clear-cut rules regarding their campaign activities, other than that they cannot exist primarily to influence elections. Under current rules, these organizations may not spend more than half of their budgets to explicitly support a candidate.

The IRS proposed new rules about six months after the agency was accused of unfairly scrutinizing tea party groups seeking tax-exempt status.

Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer who represents tea party groups that were targeted by the IRS for extra scrutiny, said it was not accidental that the rules were published in the Federal Register the Friday after Thanksgiving.

“Agencies are required to tell the public what rules they are contemplating,” Mitchell said. “These rules were developed off-plan, there was no notice prior to the time when they popped up during Thanksgiving week.”

Mitchell said the timing of the announcement “cost us about 40 percent of the comment period” because “there was no way of getting people mobilized until after the first of year.”

Nevertheless, Mitchell praised the response of grassroots groups, saying there have been almost 70,000 comments on the rules and she expects more groups to file more comments in the following days. Most of the comments have been in opposition to the proposed rules.

Mitchell said she submitted a Freedom of Information Act request seeking all the internal and external documents the administration used while drafting the newly proposed rules. The IRS said it would not be able to produce the documents until April 7, which is well after the comment period ends on Feb. 27.