On Monday the Center for Competitive Politics filed a complaint with the Senate Select Committee on Ethics against nine U.S. senators: for interfering with IRS tax proceedings; for misusing official resources for campaign purposes; and for improper conduct that reflects poorly upon the Senate. Attempting to use the IRS to advance a partisan, electoral agenda is a fundamental assault on good government. We believe these elected officials have staged such an assault.
The complaint documents how the senators improperly interfered with IRS adjudications to further their party’s electoral prospects. They pressured the IRS to undertake income-tax investigations of specific organizations, to find that specific organizations were in violation of the law, to reach predetermined results pertaining to pending applications by individual organizations for nonprofit status, and to adopt specific regulatory interpretations and policies to further their campaign goals.
A year ago in May it became public knowledge that the IRS had improperly targeted conservative organizations. Republicans have since attempted to find a “smoking gun” directly linking the scandal to the White House. That likely does not exist, because that’s not the way these things are done. Meanwhile, their quest has helped enable the press to ignore obvious abuses of power emanating from the Senate.
After the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision on Jan. 21, 2010, Democrats adopted a campaign strategy of attempting to squelch the speech of conservative groups. Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.) – named in our complaint – introduced the so-called Disclose Act, saying on Feb. 11 that it would make targeted speakers “think twice” before speaking out. “The deterrent effect should not be underestimated,” he added.
At campaign fundraisers in the summer of 2010, President Obama repeatedly denounced conservative organizations for “running millions of dollars of attack ads against Democratic candidates,” identifying Americans for Prosperity by name. On Aug. 27 the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee filed a complaint with the IRS against Americans for Prosperity.
Senate Democrats twice failed, on straight party-line votes, to end a filibuster of the Disclose Act. Mr. Obama told Democratic donors that they had “tried to fix” the problem but failed.
The attempt to silence opponents through legislation may be ugly, but such hardball politics are not a violation of Senate ethics rules. After failing to pass Disclose, however, the senators in our complaint began a pattern of improper conduct aimed at pressuring the IRS to harass and investigate their political opponents.
Senators may inquire about agency practices and operations. But they cross an ethical line when they interfere in pending tax exemption applications or pressure an agency to investigate or prosecute specific organizations.
Just days after the final defeat of the Disclose Act in October 2010, Sen. Richard Durbin (D., Ill.) – another senator in our complaint – wrote to IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman on his official letterhead to demand that the IRS “quickly examine the tax status of Crossroads GPS,” a major conservative nonprofit.
Mr. Durbin accused Crossroads GPS of breaking the law. He later admitted to Chris Wallace on Fox News that he sought the investigation because “they were boastful about how much money they were going to raise and beat Democrats with.”
Pressure on the IRS increased after the 2010 midterm Republican landslide. Mr. Schumer stated in one speech, “It’s clear we’re not going to pass anything legislatively,” due to “Republican control” of the House. “But there are many things that can be done by the IRS… and we have to redouble our efforts. We have not worked hard enough on this.” In a letter to the IRS on March 12, 2012, Mr. Schumer urged the service to investigate various groups identified through reference to news articles.
Michigan Sen. Carl Levin wrote at least seven letters to the IRS, and demanded that it investigate specific nonprofits. The IRS’s failure to launch these investigations, he wrote in one, was “unacceptable.” Mr. Levin also sought confidential nonprofit tax return information from the IRS, even after being warned, repeatedly, by IRS Deputy Commissioner for Services and Enforcement Steven T. Miller, that such information could not be legally divulged.
These are just a few examples of abuse of power for electoral gain. The other six senators named in the complaint are Michael Bennet (D., Colo.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D., R.I.), Al Franken (D., Minn.), Jeanne Shaheen (D., N.H.), Jeff Merkley (D., Ore.) and Tom Udall (D., N.M.). Under the Senate Ethics Committee rules, when such a complaint is received – including by private individuals – “The Committee shall promptly commence a preliminary inquiry… of such duration and scope as is necessary” to find whether ethics rules were violated.
There is ample evidence that these efforts affected IRS policy, but the senators’ behavior is improper even if it did not. Senate rules require that the Ethics Committee take action. And we as citizens must make sure that the IRS is not abused by Democrats or Republicans for partisan electoral gain.