Manuel Balce Ceneta, Associated Press
This file photo taken March 2, 2013, shows the Internal Revenue Service building at the Federal Triangle complex in Washington.

While Congress is still probing how the IRS ended up targeting conservative political groups, the agency itself has found a way to make things even worse.

New regulations have been announced as to how non-profit, 501(c)(4) “social welfare” groups will be allowed to operate. Previously, an organization was qualified for tax-exempt status if it was “primarily engaged in promoting in some way the common good and general welfare of the people of the community.”

Now, however, the IRS has issued confusing new guidelines it says “may be both more restrictive and more permissive than the current approach.”

Under the new rules, “campaign-related political activity” doesn’t represent work done of the common good or general welfare. This comes as a shock to a many of these groups, both liberal and conservative, which influence the political process.

Although such latitude has existed for more than 50 years, the Obama administration has now decided to redefine that latitude as unacceptable behavior. Dan Backer, an election lawyer who represents many of these groups, defined the problem in an interview with the Washington Post.

“The IRS is approaching this as, ‘We are giving you the right to speak and you are going to speak within the confines we tell you,'" Backer said. “And that’s wrong. This whole effort is simply a way to empower government to regulate speech.”

It’s surprising that the government would take this approach in the wake of the outrage of the specific targeting by the IRS of conservative groups. Lois Lerner, the IRS chief, is likely to be held in contempt of Congress for refusing to testify about her agency’s action. Yet the president has stated that there is not even a “smidgen” of evidence that any of this constitutes a scandal, and that the denial of tax-exempt status to right-wing groups was just the result of “boneheaded decisions.”

While we would agree that those denials were ill-advised decisions, they were also clearly motivated by ideology: all groups subjected to increased scrutiny and delay of tax-exempt status were conservative. This kind of partisanship by the IRS weaponizes one of Washington’s most powerful agencies against those critical of the president.

44 comments on this story

If a Democratic president can use the IRS to target conservative groups without consequence, what’s to prevent a Republican president from doing the same thing to liberal groups? Many now defending the president would be justifiably outraged if the Bush administration had engaged in such behavior.

The Obama administration should be more concerned about the “campaign-related political activity” within its own agency. The politicized scrutiny of non-profit groups has no place in the Internal Revenue Service.