As evidence mounts that the IRS is more closely scrutinizing politically active nonprofit groups, Republicans on Capitol Hill have lashed out with assaults on the tax agency and fresh demands for an explanation.
The IRS may have stepped over the line this year by asking conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status to hand over the names of their donors, wrote Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah) and 10 other Republican Senators in a letter this week to IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman.
“Unfortunately, the public release of private donor information exposes citizens to possible harassment and intimidation by those who oppose the goals of the charitable organization,” wrote Hatch, ranking member of the Finance Committee. It’s the second letter from Hatch to Shulman on the topic this year.
The letter is the latest in a string of attacks by conservatives on and off Capitol Hill, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), on initiatives that would shed more light on political spending. In a strongly worded speech last week at the American Enterprise Institute, McConnell accused President Barack Obama of creating an “enemies list” and “attempting to change the First Amendment.”
McConnell faulted disclosure legislation pending in the Senate, as well as transparency measures under consideration at the Federal Communications Commission, Federal Election Commission and Securities and Exchange Commission. But he singled out the IRS for special criticism.
McConnell cast the IRS as the “speech police” for sending lengthy questionnaires to “dozens of tea-party-affiliated groups” seeking tax exemptions. He also accused the agency of leaking confidential tax information, citing reports last month that a leadership PAC run by presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney had donated $10,000 to the National Organization for Marriage, which opposes same-sex marriage.
A recent IRS move to revoke the tax-exempt status of a small nonprofit group and its affiliates “undoubtedly foreshadows an effort to do the same to bigger groups on the right that the Obama administration regards as a threat to its campaign,” McConnell warned.
The GOP salvos may reflect an attempt to get ahead of what could be inevitable IRS audits of politically active groups spending millions in the 2012 elections, said Marcus Owens, a tax lawyer with Caplin & Drysdale.
“I think the Republicans in Congress are running interference for their followers and supporters out there,” said Owens, former director of the IRS’ Exempt Organizations Division. “And they are probably also building a firewall against what’s probably inevitable — when groups like Crossroads GPS get audited.”
Even as the agency faces Republican complaints, watchdogs and Democrats have called on the IRS to investigate politically active nonprofits such as Crossroads GPS, which by some estimates has spent more than $20 million on anti-Obama ads in this election cycle.