(AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

How Boehner helped create IRS scandal 13 years ago

A 2000 campaign finance law backed by future IRS foes had good intentions but backfired horribly -- and predictably


Alex Seitz-Wald
July 12, 2013 12:05AM (UTC)

The political powers the IRS was recently accused of abusing to harass Tea Party groups were given to it against its will by Congress -- including some of the agency's biggest critics today -- over 10 years ago, according to documents and a former senior tax official. The revelation, which has been missing in most if not all of the commentary on the scandal, adds a key bit of context to it.

In a half-measure effort to strengthen campaign finance disclosure laws in 2000, Congress put the IRS, effectively for the first time, in the awkward position of having to make judgment calls about whether nonprofit advocacy groups would be required to disclose their donors because too much of their activities crossed the theoretical line between “issues advocacy” and “political campaign intervention.” It's a messy and inherently subjective business, and something officials did not want to get more involved in, predicting it would lead to exactly the kind of controversy we just witnessed. "The IRS would inevitably be subject to claims of discrimination and political bias for actions taken or not taken," an internal memo from the Treasury Department's office of Tax Policy sent in June 2000 and obtained by Salon reads.

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"The fuse was lit in 2000 with this law, which put the IRS in an untenable position. It's almost surprising it didn't explode on them earlier," Steven Arkin, a former senior Treasury and IRS official, who proceeded Lois Lerner as the director of rulings and agreements for the IRS' tax exempt organizations office, told Salon.

The law, a stand-alone bill numbered H.R.4762, had the best of intentions, but backfired thanks to an enormous loophole. After a comprehensive campaign finance bill failed, reformers pushed a narrow bill to increase disclosure of groups organized under section 527 of the tax code. That was reserved for groups primarily involved in electoral politics -- but before this law, 527s that didn't engage in explicit electoral intervention didn't have to file any paperwork of any kind with the IRS. They incorporated as legal entities in their states, and that was that. No information on donors, expenditures or even their existence needed to be made public. If they did engage in electioneering, they would have to disclose that information to the FEC, but only for each specific activity. Thanks to the lax standards, these groups earned the moniker "Stealth PACs" and became the bane of campaign finance reform advocates.

When lawmakers brought up a bill to force 527 groups to disclose their donors just before Congress was about to go on its July 4 recess in 2000, they made a concession to skeptical Republicans and some Democrats who were looking out for liberal nonprofits: 501(c) groups -- business leagues and the so-called social welfare organizations at the center of this year's IRS controversy -- would not be included. This didn't seem like a big deal at the time, since almost everyone who wanted to meddle in politics organized as a 527 and not a 501(c)4. Both types of groups are tax-exempt, but 527's had free rein to engage in electoral politics, while 501(c)4's are limited to spending less than half their money on it. Social welfare and other groups are permitted to engage in unlimited issue advocacy, so long as their efforts to elect or defeat particular candidates were not their “primary” activity.

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But former Sen. Russ Feingold, a staunch campaign finance reform advocate, saw what would happen if you cracked down on 527's and not 501(c)4's. "By only focusing on disclosure in one type of tax-exempt organization and not on others, we leave open the use of the other type of tax-exempt organizations by those who want to hide their contributions and activity behind the cloak of anonymity that these tax-exempt organizations provide," Feingold warned on the floor during the Senate's very short debate. He added that he was concerned that the IRS was "not prepared" to take on this burden, given the administration's concern.

Sen. John McCain, the Senate sponsor, said that while it would be nice to do all groups, "focusing narrowly on 527 organizations" was necessary to "ensure that the legislation survives a constitutional test." In the House, Wisconsin Democrat Tom Barrett, acknowledged that "this bill is not perfect" since it exempted social welfare organizations, but said including them might be "poison pill provisions" that would "scuttle this important reform effort."

The bill passed overwhelmingly in both chambers. In the House, it was 385-39, with the "yay" column including Republican Reps. John Boehner, Dave Camp, Paul Ryan, Jim DeMint and many others who would later make hay of the way the IRS regulated 501(c) groups. Meanwhile, the Senate approved it 92-6, with McCain, Lindsey Graham, Rick Santorum and many others voting in favor. Sen. Mitch McConnell, a longtime opponent of campaign finance reform, voted no, but said, "I recommend to my Republican colleagues that they vote for this bill," calling it "relatively benign and harmless."

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The fallout was not particularly surprising. Two months after the law went into effect, the Washington Post reported that "instead of complying with the new law, a number of groups are instead reconstituting themselves under other provisions of the tax code that do not force them to reveal their donors." Ben Ginsberg, a prominent GOP election lawyer, told the Post he couldn't keep up with with his clients' requests to convert. "We'd be running out of fingers and toes" just to count them all, he said. Claiming to be new groups, they reorganized as 501(c)4's, which can do basically all the same things the old 527's did, just under a different section of the tax code. So in the end, Congress swapped out 527 "Stealth PACs" for 501(c)4 "Dark Money" groups.

But while the change seems banal, it effectively transferred oversight of this species in the campaign finance ecology to the IRS, an agency less well equipped to handle delicate political questions than the FEC, which was designed with a bipartisan commission and other features precisely to handle touchy political issues, including fundraising matters impacting members of Congress themselves.

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"The proposals to amend the Internal Revenue Code would put the IRS in the position where it, rather than the FEC, must become the "watchdog," the Treasury Department memo, first reported by Sam Stein at the Huffington Post, warned before the law passed. "Imposition of such a burden on the IRS would be an administrative nightmare for the agency."

"It never should have been given to the IRS," said Arkin, the former tax official.

It's a fitting coda to the IRS scandal that the problem was largely created by the people most outraged by it.

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Alex Seitz-Wald

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