New rules proposed by the IRS that ban tax-exempt groups from political activities would trample free-speech rights and allow the agency to continue harassing opponents of the Obama administration, say groups already targeted by the IRS.
The new Internal Revenue Service rules prevent 501 (c)(4) tax-exempt groups from running television ads, organizing get-out-the-vote efforts or voter registration drives, or handing out literature on any political issue.
Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer representing several conservative groups that have been singled out by the IRS for scrutiny, said she believes the administration wants the new regulations in place in order to blunt the negative impact that Obamacare could have for Democrats in the next election.
"One of the reasons they hurried to get this thing out, and they did it over Thanksgiving, [is] they are trying to find a way to keep citizens' groups, particularly tea party groups, from criticizing people who voted for Obamacare, and they want to get these in effect by next year," Mitchell told Newsmax.
"They know that's coming, they don't want people out criticizing, spending money, attacking, reminding people who voted for Obamacare," Mitchell said.
Mitchell noted that labor unions would not be affected by the new rules, and added that those organizations spent $4.4 billion on political activities between 2006 and 2011.
In April, news exploded that tax officials had demanded information from conservative groups, including donor lists, Internet passwords and usernames, and political and charitable activities of family members, in efforts to stall tax-exempt status applications of groups that had "tea," "patriot," or other conservative buzzwords in their title.
"It's really astounding that the IRS thinks that it can get away with [the proposed new rules] in the aftermath of the targeting scandal, when its extremely clear goal to silence and stifle the conservative movement has been made plain for America to see," David French, senior counsel at the American Center for Law and Justice, told Newsmax.
The law center is representing more than 40 conservative groups that sued the federal government after a Congressional investigation revealed the organizations were targeted for additional scrutiny by the IRS when seeking tax-exempt status.
"It takes some chutzpah to do this, but if the Obama administration is willing to do anything, it's certainly willing to suppress and silence its critics," French said.
Despite public apologies from Obama administration officials called to testify before Congress, critics say the unlawful targeting continues and that multiple conservative organizations have still not received IRS approval on their tax-exempt status.
"This administration has grown increasingly brazen in its attempts to curtail political speech, especially when that speech is conservative," Becky Gerritson, president of the Wetumpka Tea Party in Alabama, told Newsmax.
"You'll find that left-wing political non-profits like Greenpeace and the Tides Foundation will somehow be missed in the new filtering process," Gerritson said. "Fortunately for the tea party, the government isn't very good at doing anything. Like Obamacare, this plan will backfire."
Tom Clifton, treasurer of the Mid-South Tea Party in Tennessee, said the proposed rules that block political activity in the months leading up to an election are further proof the administration's persecution against tea party groups has not ended.
"I believe it is to harass conservative non-profits and, again, try to squelch free speech that would oppose their ideas," Clifton said. "There's really no surprise from this administration, that's for sure. They've been limiting free speech since 2008.
"They hope this will at least quiet [conservative groups] down, or make them go away. Some of them will go away, because a lot of tea parties, unfortunately, seem to concentrate on campaigns," Clifton said.
Clifton said the Mid-South Tea Party focuses on education and policies rather than politicians, but the new rules would forbid the group from weighing in on any political issue including taxes and spending.
Once the rules pass the public comment process, one Republican source who works with a non-profit group predicted that there would be immediate court challenges.
The fact that the Obama administration wants rules to ban all political activity by tax-exempt groups in the months prior to an election signals that the groups were not violating their tax status to begin with, the source said.
"It appears that despite all of the huffing and puffing, what non-profits are doing right now is perfectly permissible under the given set of rules. Therefore they believe they need to change the rules," the source said. "The question is whether or not these proposals will actually do anything, given that the Supreme Court repeatedly protects the free speech rights of these groups."
Gerritson said the rules would affect fundraising efforts and the ability of groups to accept grants, but the administration's effort would likely drive more Americans to support their cause.
"In the long term, the federal government's attempts at curtailing speech will drive Americans toward the resurging limited-government movement," Gerritson said. "Their attempts to shut out our voices will only provide oxygen to a growing fire in America's grassroots."
The Treasury Department said the proposed regulations are necessary to clarify what activities are permissible for groups designated as 501(c)(4) organizations to promote social welfare.
"It will take time to work through the regulatory process and carefully consider all public feedback as we strive to ensure that the standards for tax-exemption are clear and can be applied consistently," said Mark J. Mazur, assistant secretary for Tax Policy at the Treasury Department.
French said the current rules governed these organizations for years without any controversy, until the tea party emerged during the 2010 midterm election and swept into Washington new lawmakers who were determined to curb government spending and growth.
"There have been a number of liberal groups who for years and years have been heavily engaged in the political process, as is their right — the NAACP, Moveon.org and others heavily engaged in the political battles of our day," French said.
"Do we think for one second that this partisan IRS will be even-handed in enforcing these new regulations? Of course not," French said. "They're going to continue the same partisan pattern that they've been charting throughout the entire Obama administration."
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