WASHINGTON – Congressional Republicans are fighting efforts by the Obama administration to rein in the political activities of tax-exempt groups.
A House panel passed a bill Tuesday that would delay regulations by the Treasury Department designed to limit the political activities of so-called social welfare groups.
In the past several years, some of these groups have raised and spent millions influencing the outcome of elections. Others are small community groups advocating local issues. For all of them, their tax-exempt status allows them to keep secret the identity of their donors.
In November, Treasury and the Internal Revenue Service issued draft regulations that would limit the political activities of such groups. The proposed regulations have attracted more than 23,000 comments from the public — a record — according to the Internal Revenue Service.
Treasury officials said the regulations would help clarify vague rules about which groups qualify for tax-exempt status.
“It is about disclosure,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-N.J., a senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee. “Nowhere in the Bill of Rights does it say you have the right to say anything you want — and also not pay any taxes.”
The proposed regulations came after IRS officials acknowledged last spring that agents had improperly targeted tea party and other conservative groups for extra scrutiny when they applied for tax-exempt status. The revelation prompted ongoing investigations by Congress and the Justice Department, and the replacement of several top IRS officials.
Congressional Republicans said the regulations are an attempt by the Obama administration to legalize the targeting of conservative groups.
“This is a government that is seeking to silence the voices of groups that disagree with them,” said Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, a senior member of the Ways and Means Committee.
The committee voted 23-13 to pass a bill that would block the regulations for a year. It was straight party-line vote, with Republicans in favour and Democrats opposed. The full House is expected to take up the bill after the House returns from its Presidents’ Day vacation.
Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., said delaying the regulations would give Congress and the Justice Department time to finish their investigations.
“The notion that the administration would rush forward with rules intended to remove these groups from the public forum is simply unacceptable,” Camp said. “I have long made clear that this committee will fight any and all efforts to restrict the rights of groups to organize, speak out and educate the public.”
Senate Republicans have embraced the effort but the bill has little chance of becoming law because Democrats oppose it.
Democrats said the bill is little more than an election-year ploy by Republicans to rally the party base. They note that final regulations probably wouldn’t be issued for at least a year, anyway.
“Unfortunately, the proposed regulations are being used by Republicans in Congress to renew a tireless campaign to turn the issue into a scandal that would pay political dividends,” said Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee.
The regulations would apply to social welfare groups applying for tax-exempt status under section 501(c) 4 of the tax code. Under current regulations, these groups can engage in politics, but their primary mission cannot be to influence the outcome of elections.
The current regulations have led IRS agents to ask groups intrusive questions about the amount of time they spend on activities that are potentially political.
The proposed rules would limit certain “candidate-related political activity.” But the rules leave open the question of how much the activity would be restricted.
Limited activities would include voter drives and voter registration efforts, as well as ads that “expressly advocate for a clearly identified political candidate or candidates of a political party.” Also included would be ads that mention a politician or a political party within 60 days of a general election or 30 days before a primary.
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