By Stephen Dinan
The Obama administration’s proposed crackdown on tea party and other nonprofit groups that want to play a role in politics is quietly crumbling as opposition builds across the political spectrum to new IRS rules.
Almost all of the nearly 70,000 public comments submitted as of Monday night were vehemently opposed to the proposal, which would limit the ability of social welfare nonprofits — those organized under 501(c)(4) of the tax code — to even talk about candidates in the two months before an election.
Conservatives have been battling the Internal Revenue Service, with the Republican-controlled House planning votes this week to try to halt the rules. But opposition from the other side of the political spectrum also is growing as liberal groups take a deeper look at the rules and realize they would affect more than just tea party and high-dollar conservative organizations.
The American Civil Liberties Union said the proposed rule “threatens to discourage or sterilize an enormous amount of political discourse in America.”
The Alliance for Justice, a coalition of more than 100 progressive groups, was opposed from the start. It led a signature drive on a letter asking the IRS to withdraw the series of changes, which it called “a very deep and troubling line in the sand.”
The League of Conservation Voters, one of the highest-spending nonprofits in the past election cycle, said it appreciates the IRS motives but worries that the agency is going too far.
“We have always been supportive of real reform that gets special interest money out of politics, and we welcome additional clarity. This is just the first step and, as always, the devil is in the details,” said David Willett, vice president of communications. “We want to make sure that any final rules do the right job of curtailing shadowy c4s and don’t end up hurting legitimate groups who represent large public constituencies.”
In the wake of the tea party targeting scandal, the IRS announced last year that it would try to rewrite rules to limit how much political activity nonprofits can do and still qualify for tax-exempt status.
Under the existing interpretation, groups that qualify cannot be focused primarily on campaigning. Many groups have interpreted that to mean they can spend 49 percent of their money on politics and not run afoul of the law.
In November, the IRS, arguing that too many groups are crossing the line, proposed rules that would limit everything from get-out-the-vote drives and voter guides that mention candidates or parties, to holding events attended by candidates — which could include a sitting member of Congress or even the president.
Cleta Mitchell, a conservative lawyer who is representing tea party groups that sued the IRS for the targeting scandal, said the rules were designed by the same people responsible for the tea party targeting scandal. But she said groups on all sides of the political spectrum are realizing they could be harmed.
“The ACLU’s comments filed a few weeks ago sent a shot across the bow and let liberal groups know it would be all right to speak out,” she said. “I think there was an effort through and by some powerful Democratic senators to intimidate liberal groups into keeping quiet, but that, thankfully, has not worked and more and more of those groups are publicly opposing the proposed rules.”
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