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June 2012
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OVERREACH IRS doubles down on effort to restrict political speech

Lois Lerner was in the news again last week. Lerner is the former IRS director who oversaw its Exempt Organizations branch. That's the agency that was outed last year for targeting tea party groups' non-profit status in the run-up to the 2012 election.

Some will recall that President Obama feigned outrage when the scandal erupted last spring. He went on national television and said, "It's inexcusable and Americans are right to be angry about it. And I'm angry about it." He also ordered Treasury Secretary Jack Lew to fire then-acting IRS commissioner Steven Miller over the matter.

Not long afterward, Lerner went before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and, after reading a statement denying she did anything wrong, obtusely invoked the Fifth Amendment and refused to answer any of the panel's questions. The administration removed her from her position but did not fire her. Rather, she was allowed to retire later last year.

Meanwhile, as the worm turned in the White House press office, the president's outrage gave way in the months that followed to contentions by White House Press Secretary Jay Carney that the whole affair was a "made-up scandal."

By December President Obama, speaking in the comfortable confines of an interview with MSNBC lapdog Chris Matthews, said the whole mess had been the result of an ill-fated effort by the IRS to "be more efficient."

As has come to be expected, the president has succeeded over time in bringing much of the national press corps to heel with this strategy. So how is it, if this is all such a non-scandal, that Lois Lerner's attorney last week demanded she receive immunity from prosecution in return for further testimony sought by the House committee?

In fact, rather than rebuke the IRS misdeeds, the administration has doubled down on efforts to suppress political speech. It has proposed new IRS rules "clarifying" what 501(c) (4) non-profit advocacy groups can say and when they can say it. Such groups already are limited to spending 49 percent or less of their funds on politics lest they lose their tax exemptions. The proposed new regulation would define as politics "any communication, public or private" that states a view on any "identifiable" candidate or slate of candidates. It also bans 501(c)(4)s from any public mention of any political candidate within 30 days of a primary election or 60 days of a general election.

But this time the proposed restrictions have raised the hackles of liberal groups that heretofore were not too concerned about tea partiers getting their wings clipped. The American Civil Liberties Union, the Sierra Club, and the liberal Alliance for Justice are among those objecting. The ACLU filed a 26-page comment excoriating the proposed limits as striking "at the heart of our representative democracy. To the extent (such informational activity) influences voting, it does so by promoting an informed citizenry."

The Sierra Club makes a like argument, saying the rule "harms efforts that have nothing to do with politics, from our ability to communicate with our members about clean air and water to our efforts to educate the public about toxic pollution."

Or put more simply, it gives the IRS the power to suppress participation by organizations of any political stripe in the political process by getting their message out - even to their own members. President Obama was right the first time. Such efforts by the government should outrage the American public and they are. Such government interference also offends the law and the Constitution, and that's one reason Lois Lerner feels compelled to take the Fifth.

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