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SPOTLIGHT
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IRS back at it

Published on -1/10/2014, 9:34 AM

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Recall the flareup regarding last year's supposed targeting of tea party groups by the IRS? It is difficult not to, as so many elected leaders seemed to be personally affronted -- and went on the public warpath to air their grievances.

When the Internal Revenue Service was investigating the proper use of tax-exempt status by politically active groups, but admitted searching for terms such as "patriot" and "tea party" in the groups' names, that flareup became an uproar. There were public apologies, resignations and too many congressional hearings to count.

Of course when a few months later it was revealed the IRS also was searching for terms such as "progressive," "Occupy," "green energy" and "healthcare legislation," no such uproar ensued. It didn't fit the conservatives' conspiracy theory, and liberals likely just wanted the whole mess to go away.

Thankfully, the IRS is not letting it drop. Together with the Treasury Department, an attempt is taking place to better define the difference between political activity and social welfare activity. The distinction is critical as social welfare groups can raise unlimited amounts of money from anonymous donors, which ends up influencing campaigns, while groups engaged in political activity are subject to campaign finance laws and aren't tax-exempt.

The two agencies are conducting a lengthy comment period, after which new regulations will be proposed.

It doesn't strike us the work will prove too burdensome. We would recommend officials involved consult a dictionary to start with.

Merriam-Webster defines social welfare as "organized public or private social services for the assistance of disadvantaged groups; specifically, social work." The same resource suggests "a group that is formed to give money to the political campaigns of people who are likely to make decisions that would benefit the group's interests" is a political action committee.

The agencies then could examine what each existing or pending 501(c)(4) entity declares about itself. The 501(c)(4) groups are the tax-exempt social welfare groups under the U.S. tax code -- and are the very ones being examined last year before all the brouhaha began.

One of the biggest social welfare groups is Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, which was began by GOP superstar strategist Karl Rove. Crossroads GPS, as it's known, has raised untold millions to help candidates get elected or defeated, depending on where they stand.

Crossroads GPS claims on its website it "is dedicated to holding Washington's feet to the fire on the practical issues that will actually improve our country and our lives. ... We use every available means -- from TV ads to constituent letters -- to help educate busy people and urge our leaders to take action on this common sense punch-list for positive change. Our bottom line is this: we believe that if we educate, equip and mobilize millions of regular Americans, we can make our country great again -- from the ground up."

What would those common sense goals be? "Build national public support for dismantling Obamacare piece-by-piece. Prevent liberals in Congress and the Obama Administration from destroying affordable U.S. energy and jobs. Block tax increases on families and job creators, while enacting tax reforms that make American business more competitive and tax compliance less onerous. Build massive public pressure to fix America's broken entitlement system, impose tough spending controls and reform Washington's fiscal incompetence. Broaden support for immigration reforms that lock down border security, meet our economy's workforce needs, fully assimilate new immigrants, and deal responsibly with those who are here illegally."

If that doesn't sound like political activity, we're not sure what possibly would qualify. Crossroads GPS can accomplish what a candidate's campaign or a traditional party committee can't -- simply because they have no limits. And with anonymity, there is absolutely no accountability.

Critics of the current system, brought about by the Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United, say the current rules governing the social welfare organizations are confusing and prone to abuse.

Of that we have no doubt. We hope that confusion and abuse can be eliminated without all the chitter chatter from tea party groups claiming another crackdown on real Americans. It is the huge organizations acting as political slush funds with no oversight capability the IRS is after. Their activity is what is messing up the entire political process for all of us -- tea partiers included.

Editorial by Patrick Lowry

plowry@dailynews.net

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