In spring 2010, agents in the Cincinnati office of the Internal Revenue Service, which handles applications for tax-exempt status, faced a surge of filings by new advocacy groups, with little guidance on how to treat them. Their decision to deal with the problem by singling out tea party and other conservative groups for extra scrutiny has now triggered a criminal inquiry, congressional investigations, the departure of two top IRS officials and the naming of a new acting commissioner Thursday. For former IRS staff and tax experts, the case confirms what they view as one of the agency’s long-standing weaknesses: its inability to cope with the growing number of tax-exempt advocacy groups that appear to stretch the law to engage in politics.
With the IRS now under fire for its practices, campaign finance lawyers anticipate that the agency will shy away even more from regulating such organizations.
At the heart of the issue is the murky role occupied by nonprofit “social welfare” organizations, set up under Section 501(c)4 of the tax code, which are allowed under IRS regulations to engage in a certain amount of campaign activity, as long as politics is not their “primary” purpose. The groups pay no tax on the money they bring in. They can accept unlimited donations and, unlike political committees, can keep their contributors secret.
That status became especially valuable three years ago with the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case, which lifted the ban on direct campaign spending by corporations, including many nonprofit groups. The ruling triggered the boost of applicants to the IRS.