Harry Reid Slams the ACLU, NAACP, and Sierra Club

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By Phil Kerpen

In offering his full-throated support for the shameful IRS 501(c)(4) muzzle rule, the despicable Harry Reid is once again attacking Charles and David Koch, claiming that any opponent of the rule is simply advocating for "the Koch brothers and billionaires just like them." But whether Reid realizes it or not, he's also attacking stalwart liberal groups including the ACLU, the NAACP, and the Sierra Club.

Last month the House passed H.R. 3865, which would prohibit the IRS from rushing a final rule regulating 501(c)(4) organizations in the middle of the current tax year. It passed on a 243-176 vote with 14 Democrats joining in support for the bipartisan measure.  (Reid, who has so far refused to allow a Senate vote, has perhaps concluded that those 14 Democrats are tools of shadowy billionaires.)

Harry Reid's vocal refusal to stand up for political speech is a transparent attempt to aid the faltering political fortunes of endangered Democratic Senate colleagues. But it also flies directly in the face of some of the country's most venerable liberal non-profit organizations.

Consider the official comments from the ACLU, which is extremely critical of the proposed IRS rule:           

Most social welfare organizations - on both the left and right — serve exactly that function as they see it, the promotion of social welfare and community good. Based on their respective visions, they advocate for the powerless and the voiceless. They promote fiscal responsibility and good government. They serve as a check on government overreach, or as a cheerleader for sound public policy.

In many of these functions, social welfare organizations praise or criticize candidates for public office on the issues and they should be able to do so freely, without fear of losing or being denied tax-exempt status, even if doing so could influence a citizen’s vote. Such advocacy is at the heart of our representative democracy. To the extent it influences voting, it does so by promoting an informed citizenry.

Or the NAACP, which noted in its official comments to the IRS:

To place our comments in historical perspective, you must understand that much of the work that the NAACP did in the early years to combat racial discrimination in the administration of our nation's voting laws would be illegal under the proposed regulation. The NAACP fought to register people to vote when government-sanctioned voter suppression laws and tactics (e.g., poll taxes, ID laws, literacy tests, grandfather clauses, whites-only primaries, etc.) and violence kept African Americans from exercising their Constitutional right to case a ballot. Internal Revenue Service rule making should not be permitted to undermine the progress we have made over the past century to expand the franchise.

Cathy Duvall, the Sierra Club’s director of strategic partnerships, told the Washington Post the proposed 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.”

The liberal umbrella Alliance for Justice is even more critical:

In its attempt to define what kinds of activity are “political” and therefore cannot be counted toward a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization’s social welfare purpose, Treasury and the IRS drew a very deep and troubling line in the sand.  Though the new definitions attempt to clarify existing rules, they also create a danger to citizen participation in our democracy.

If implemented, there would be no such thing as a nonpartisan election activity conducted by a 501(c)(4); it would all be considered “political.”   By expanding the definition of what activities are political, the rules would drastically reduce the ability of (c)(4)s to engage in nonpartisan get-out-the-vote drives, candidate questionnaires, and voter registration drives.  These activities have been critical to the ability of nonprofits to influence the public policy debate on a wealth of issues.

These regulations will not run 501(c)(4)s out of politics.  Rather, the big players will hire lawyers and accountants to help them avoid the rules. Small players can’t afford this kind of assistance.  As a result, much smaller groups may well be frozen out of legitimate citizen engagement.  Creating an entirely distinct political organization to promote their policy agendas – new clean water laws or “no smoking” ordinances, for example — would be too costly and burdensome.

In a devastating piece published on The Nation’s website, Alliance for Justice’s Nan Aron specifically debunks every one of the excuses Reid has offered for opposing H.R. 3865. This one is particularly relevant:

There is nothing in these rules that deals at all with disclosure of donors

If you’re worried about “dark” money and a lack of disclosure of donors, there is nothing in the regs about where the money for (c)(4)s comes from, and they don’t require any new level of disclosure. If the money was “dark” before, it will continue to be “dark” after.

As grassroots activists across the political spectrum flooded the docket with an unprecedented number of comments opposing the proposed rule, the liberal group Common Cause sent out a call to its activists warning: “Tea Party groups are flooding the agency with comments.”  Yet, remarkably, even Common Cause notes in its model comments that the rule as proposed is flawed:

At the same time, the proposed rules are imperfect because they count critical civic engagement efforts like nonpartisan voter registration and nonpartisan get-out-the-vote activities as “candidate-related political activity” and should be exempted from the definition.

While many liberals would like to see IRS rulemaking in this area, there is not a single group that is comfortable with the current proposed rule.  Not one. Nearly all of the record 145,000-plus individual comments the IRS received were critical of the proposed rule in whole or in part. So what's the harm in slowing this rulemaking down?

H.R. 3865 only prohibits the IRS from issuing a final rule in the middle of the current tax year. It does not stop them from moving forward in a deliberate way, giving due consideration to these serious concerns from the public.  The bill would ensure that the agency does not regulate prematurely, trampling the rights of liberal grassroots groups as well as conservatives.

It passed the House with bipartisan support. Harry Reid should stop attacking everyone who opposes the rule -- including, by implication, his own liberal base -- and put free speech ahead of crass political calculation by scheduling a Senate vote immediately.