Campaign Legal Center’s Sordid History of “Encouraging” the IRS

As the IRS slogs through its widely panned political-speech regulation effort, it is receiving moral support from an old friend, the Campaign Legal Center. Last week, CLC policy director Meredith McGehee sought to provide cover for the IRS’ disastrous 501(c)(4) rulemaking and discourage those “intimidating” the behemoth tax collector.  

But CLC’s previous role as unsolicited IRS wingman was a disaster. CLC was aware of and publicly encouraged IRS tactics in the Tea Party scandal. And the organization seems neither to comprehend the calamity of that event nor have a solid grasp of the current campaign finance structure.


As Ms. McGehee notes, in the time between Citizens United v. FEC and the IRS scandal, CLC had deluged the agency with “encouragement” to crackdown on what it perceived as scofflaws—particularly Crossroads GPS. The effort included routine publicity blitzes with endless press releases and public letters addressed to Doug Shulman and the now-infamous Lois Lerner.


Ms. Lerner was well aware of CLC and other groups’ agitation as she stated in an October 2010 talk at Duke University:


So everybody is screaming at us right now: ‘Fix it now before the election. Can’t you see how much these people are spending?’ I won’t know until I look at their 990s next year whether they have done more than their primary activity as political or not. So I can’t do anything right now.


Of course privately the IRS was “doing something”—subjecting conservative groups to invasive irrelevant questions, and delaying their applications for months, sometimes years.


While CLC would initially claim it was “breathtaking” that the IRS would be “harassing mom-and-pop tea party organizations,” it knew exactly what was going on and had publicly encouraged the IRS.


A March 9, 2012 CLC letter to the IRS quoted a New York Times article: “In recent weeks, the IRS has sent dozens of detailed questionnaires to Tea Party organizations applying for nonprofit tax status, demanding to know their political leanings and activities.”


The letter goes on to quote an attorney in the article calling IRS methods, “McCarthyism tactics” and “a coordinated effort by the IRS to stifle free speech.”


Instead of condemning the agency’s outrageous conduct, CLC did the opposite: “We strongly urge the IRS not to succumb to such arguments, or to any public or political pressure . . .”


CLC now breezily brushes aside the scandal as “ham handed.” But a recently released report by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, reveals the IRS systematically stifled conservative groups before the 2012 election.


In the scandal aftermath, the IRS has continuously blocked efforts to uncover the full extent of misconduct. Ms. Lerner, herself, has lied to the committee several times and evaded sworn testimony.  


CLC is now once again “encouraging” the IRS to stand strong against political “intimidation.”


Perhaps even more disturbing, CLC doesn’t understand the current campaign finance regime it wants the IRS to change (in CLC’s defense, neither does Lois Lerner). Ms. McGehee states Citizens United “threw out a century’s worth of law . . . by permitting 501(c)(4) corporations (as well as business corporations) to spend money in federal elections.”


This is incorrect on several levels. First Congress did not ban corporations from spending money on federal elections until 1947. And did so only after a veto from President Truman who called it a “dangerous intrusion on free speech.” The Supreme Court did not address the constitutionality of the corporate independent-expenditure ban until 1990.


And 501(c)(4)s, meeting certain criteria, have been spending directly on electioneering for almost three decades.


Ms. McGehee’s “century of law” remark presumably references the 1907 Tillman Act, which banned direct corporate contributions to political candidates. That law remains in effect and was not challenged in Citizens United.


CLC’s record of “encouraging” the IRS and lack of basic legal acumen should not engender confidence from the agency for its 501(c)(4) rulemaking. Both organizations would do better encouraging the FEC to regulate political activity.


By Paul Jossey