WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Advocacy organizations from across the political spectrum have joined together to condemn the Internal Revenue Service's practice of discriminating against applications for tax-exempt status based solely on the perceived political leanings of the applicants, and are urging Congress to conduct vigorous oversight to determine the full scope of the misconduct.
In a statement released today, the groups -- which included the ACLU, Americans for Tax Reform and the Tea Party Express -- said, "It is difficult to conceive of a more serious threat to the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States than the federal government using its awesome power to target individuals and organizations solely because of their political beliefs." The statement was organized by The Constitution Project (TCP), a nonpartisan legal watchdog group.
According to a recently released report by the Treasury Department's Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA), beginning around March 2010, the IRS applied special scrutiny to applications from politically conservative groups with "Tea Party" or "Patriot" in their names. For example, these groups were asked to provide lists of donors or answer burdensome, intrusive, and inappropriate questions about their work.
"This kind of selective enforcement of the laws, including the potential for retaliation against groups with political beliefs counter to those in charge of the IRS, has a chilling effect on the constitutional rights of public policy advocacy organizations," said TCP president Virginia Sloan.
The groups joining the statement said they were "encouraged that several congressional leaders from both political parties have already announced their intention to hold hearings to investigate the IRS's actions." The House Ways and Means Committee is conducting a hearing tomorrow, and the Senate Finance Committee has one scheduled for next week. Sloan said she would ask that the statement be included in the hearing records.
The groups also commended President Obama's commitment to act promptly to adopt the TIGTA recommendations, but noted the report "should be considered only a first step to understanding how and why such condemnable political considerations seeped into the deliberative process." They called for an independent review by the Secretary of the Treasury and the IRS Oversight Board, a nine-member independent body charged to oversee the IRS. They applauded the Department of Justice for launching a probe into possible criminal violations.
In addition, they said Congress and the Obama administration need to develop content neutral standards for reviewing applications for tax-exempt status that can be fairly and effectively administered by the IRS.
"It is imperative that the IRS, one of the most powerful of our government's agencies, with access to the most sensitive of information, respects the rights of all organizations, including those some might consider unimportant or politically or otherwise unpopular," the statement concludes.
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