Did Congress Just Kill Regulation of Spending By Political Groups?

Last week’s budget bill was hurried through before anyone really had a chance to read the hundreds of riders and amendments that got tacked onto it. This was a very deliberate decision. John Boehner may have said that he wished Congress had more time to review the bill, but he knew perfectly well that the main reason for the rush was the fact that the House passed a 3-day continuing resolution after the final text was first posted. There were only three days to look at the bill because that’s what the Republican leadership wanted.

This means that we’ll be discovering cute little buried acorns in this bill for a while, and today Patrick Caldwell digs one up:

One small section could upend the Internal Revenue Service’s ability to regulate political organizations hoping to become nonprofits. Tacked on as a symbolic effort to mollify conservatives’ anti-IRS mania, the text is so overly vague that it could mean the dissolution of longstanding rules. Or nothing at all. No one’s really sure.

….The relevant section is buried on page 439 of the gigantic bill. Just nine lines long and 68 words, the two clauses say money designated for the IRS cannot be used to “target citizens of the United States for exercising any right guaranteed under the first Amendment” or to target “groups for regulatory scrutiny based on their ideological beliefs.”

….All of the tax experts reached by Mother Jones were mystified by the use of the word “target,” an unusual term to be applied to the IRS. “I’m not even sure what targeting means,” says Owens.

This is obviously a sop to tea partiers, who continue to be obsessed by the idea that the IRS “targeted” them unfairly in 2010. The real scandal, of course, wasn’t the fact that tea party groups got some scrutiny, but the fact that more groups don’t get scrutiny. The law pretty clearly limits the tax exemption of groups that are directly engaged in political activity, and it ought to be applied to far more groups than it is now. That includes tea party groups, virtually all of which were created specifically to engage in political activity.

But now that law is in conflict with a hastily written provision that forbids “targeting” any groups for engaging in free speech. If courts interpret that as forbidding the IRS from going after groups engaged in political advocacy, it could upend campaign finance law in the United States.

Or maybe not. But you can rest assured that this will be coming to a court near you sometime soon.