Conservatives protest IRS proposal to define political activity

Image of blonde woman in pink shirt with scarf speaking behind a podium labelled CPAC
Cleta Mitchell speaks to the Conservative Political Action Conference. (Photo credit: Gage Skidmore via Flickr)

Nonprofit organizations that would come under greater scrutiny under a proposed Internal Revenue Service rule defining political activity are organizing letter-writing campaigns against the proposal, including one campaign led by a GOP election law attorney who has been one of the agency’s biggest critics.

An analysis based on the Sunlight Foundation’s Docket Wrench tool shows that some of the more than 20,000 comments the agency has logged from individuals and organizations on appear to be part of organized campaigns. The deadline for filing comments is Feb. 27.

More than 300 comments contain similar language to this alert put out by this website, “Protect C4 Speech.” While the website does not provide any identifying language, this report by Peter Overby of National Public Radio links it to NumbersUSA, a group that pushes for restrictive immigration policies. Like many nonprofit advocacy groups, NumbersUSA operates both a 501(c)3 charity arm and a 501(c)4 advocacy arm.

Another identifiable cluster of more than two dozen comments were inspired by this alert from the group True the Vote, which is represented by longtime election GOP election expert Cleta Mitchell, of the law firm Foley and Lardner. “This rule change is an attempt to silence critics of incumbent administrations and is a tactic to reduce voter backlash,” is part of the suggested language.

True the Vote, a Texas-based organization dedicated to uncovering voter fraud, got approval of its nonprofit 501(c)3 status from the IRS last September after Mitchell brought a lawsuit on behalf of the group. The group, which grew out of the Tea Party movement, sends volunteers to the polls at election time to find identify voters that its members believe may be violating the law. It first filed for status in 2010; in its lawsuit, filed in May 2013 when Washington was consumed by an inspector general report charging that the agency targeted conservative groups, claimed it had come under greater scrutiny because of its “conservative policy positions and affiliation with Tea Party organizations.”

While the initial controversy has quieted down amidst reports that the IRS also targeted liberal groups for scrutiny, Mitchell has kept up the drumbeat and is now organizing opposition to the IRS’ proposed rules. She is the lead contact person on these talking points posted by the Center for Competitive Politics, a group that opposes campaign finance reform.

“[W]hat the IRS is proposing in these regulations is to make permanent the terrible things the IRS has been doing to silence and restrict the First Amendment activities of the tea party and conservative groups since late 2009—2010,” Mitchell told Sunlight via an email exchange. She added she was working on substantive comments to the IRS on the rules from groups and would be pursuing “strange bedfellows” joint comments from both liberal and conservative groups on the impact of the rules.

While most of the outrage against the proposed regulations appears to come from the conservative wing at this point, some liberal groups are critics as well.  Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice, which provides technical assistance to progressive nonprofit groups doing advocacy work, said on release of the proposal last November, “Though the new definitions attempt to clarify existing rules, they also create a danger to citizen participation in our democracy.” Spokesman Richard Wexler said that the group was working on its formal comments to the IRS and would submit them soon.

The Sunlight Foundation has editorialized in favor of the IRS proposal, with some qualifications, and plans to file comments on the rule. “An update to the IRS’s rules on the political activities of social welfare organizations is long overdue,” wrote Sunlight’s lobbyist, Lisa Rosenberg last November. “Both parties are playing the dark money game, taking advantage of lax rules around social welfare organizations to hide political spending.”

Other regs getting attention

Other regulatory actions getting attention this week include:

  • Genetically modified apples. The  U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) posted hundreds of comments last week relating to a petition to allow Okanagan Specialty Fruits to market apples genetically engineered to resist browning–a proposal that’s gotten more than 6,800 comments overall. The biggest cluster of comments is inspired by this alert from the Cornucopia Institute,  a strong critic of the proposal. Also weighing in against the proposal is the group Farm and Ranch Freedom, which published this alert.
  • Still on the list from last week: Physician fees, petition to protect bears living in captivity, standards for renewable fuel, and USDA proposal to deregulate herbicide resistant corn and soybeans manufactured by Dow AgroSciences.
  •  More time to comment: on this technical document on the cost of carbon, now due February 26; and this proposal by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to issue a pollution discharge permit to allow oil and gas exploration in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas near Alaska, now due February 19;