The conservative groups testifying about overzealous IRS scrutiny during a House Ways and Means Committee hearing Tuesday can’t get around a simple fact: All have been involved in the kinds of political activity that’s ripe for red flags. Simple searches on Google, Facebook, Twitter and other news engines point to plenty of political activities that are the essence of what the IRS looks for when deciding who gets an exemption from Uncle Sam. The group leaders attended rallies to stop Obama administration priorities and ripped into the president’s work on health care and missile defense. They spoke openly about defeating President Barack Obama in the 2012 election. They pushed for winners in state and local election races. Their activities might not have run afoul of the rules. But for the murky world of charitable exemptions now under heightened political scrutiny, their backgrounds underscore the gray area the IRS was in as it posed questions to the groups.
“Certainly, one of the IRS’s responsibilities is to wring out the ambiguity as much as possible in order to ascertain what the organization is going to do, and then make not necessarily the easy call of whether the political activity is less than a primary activity,” said Marcus Owens, the head of the IRS’s exempt organizations division from 1990-2000.
The IRS is in a bind when it comes to the regulation of nonprofit groups. Agency regulation prohibits nonprofits from primarily engaging in political activity but offers no public guidance to judge what unacceptable behavior means.