Republicans do not agree on much these days, but they are united in their view that the Obama administration’s response to the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups has been lethargic at best. With the midterm elections around the corner, some even say new rules proposed by the IRS to govern nonprofit groups threaten to exacerbate the original problem, clamping down on the political activity of the tea-party groups that proved so crucial in the victories over Democrats in the 2010 midterm elections.
So, while the president may have declared the scandal dead, House Republicans this week are on the case again, holding back-to-back hearings on the matter in an attempt to refocus public attention on the controversy that enveloped the IRS last May.
The first hearing, slated for this morning and led by Ohio’s Jim Jordan, will feature as a witness newly installed IRS commissioner John Koskinen. Republican lawmakers will interrogate him on the agency’s response to targeting of tea-party groups.
News that Barbara Bosserman, the Justice Department lawyer leading the investigation into the targeting scandal, has donated generously to President Obama also prompted an outcry from Republicans. “Is it your position that of the 117,000 employees at the Department of Justice, the only lawyer available to head this investigation was a major Obama donor?” Texas senator Ted Cruz asked attorney general Eric Holder at a hearing in early February. He called on Holder to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the scandal. “No one would have trusted John Mitchell to investigate Richard Nixon,” Cruz said.
Louisiana’s Charles Boustany, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee’s Oversight Subcommittee, will lead the second hearing tomorrow. He requested that Bosserman appear but was rebuffed; the Justice Department has said it cannot comment on ongoing investigations.
Instead, Boustany’s hearing will focus on rules proposed by the IRS in November — they have not yet been finalized — that would govern 501(c)(4) organizations, including tea-party groups. When the targeting scandal emerged last year, the lack of clarity surrounding the IRS’s 501(c)(4)-approval process contributed to the controversy.
The existing rules offer guidance that is more subjective than objective: Groups must promote “social welfare” and can’t “primarily” engage in political activity. IRS agents have used “over 50 percent” as the mark by which to measure whether a group is primarily engaging in political activity, and the new rules aim to define more precisely which activities are political. The IRS has said the rules are intended to “ensure that the standards for tax-exemption are clear and can be applied consistently.”
The agency proposes to classify activities such as voter-registration drives, the production of voter guides, issue advocacy, and donations to other groups that spend money on elections as political activity. Critics see that as an attempt to kneecap the 501(c)(4) groups that have opposed the president and his agenda. “They’ve taken almost everything that is a normal 501(c)(4) activity, and they are now redefining it as a candidate-related political activity,” says Cleta Mitchell, an attorney with the firm Foley & Lardner who represents several tea-party groups that claim to have been targeted by the administration. “I think really what they want to do is make sure that all those little tea-party groups that campaigned against Obamacare in 2010, that they can’t do that again.”