The IRS Gets Political

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We’re starting to see a pattern here. Since the Supreme Court restored the First Amendment rights of businesses and unions in last year’s Citizens United ruling, Democrats have been searching for a way to claw back control over political speech. The latest bureau to get the memo is the Internal Revenue Service, which may retroactively tax top donors to political advocacy groups.

In the crossroads, er, cross-hairs, are nonprofit groups that register under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code and spent millions on political advertising in the last election cycle. Big donations to those groups, the agency now says, should have been subject to gift taxes and may be owed retroactively. In a letter to one donor, the IRS noted that it “had received information that you donated cash to . . . an IRC Section 501(c)(4) organization . . . and your contribution should have been reported on your 2008 federal gift tax return.”

The letters are especially odd since the purpose of the gift tax has traditionally been used in coordination with the estate tax, to prevent people from avoiding the tax by divesting their wealth before they die. Contributions to 501(c)(4)s aren’t a routine death tax avoidance mechanism, and the contributions now under scrutiny are a pittance compared to overall gift tax revenues. So, hmmm, what could be the reason to start asserting the provision now, and only against a handful of high-profile political donors?

IRS spokesman Michelle Eldridge said in a statement last week that the letters are the idea of career IRS employees, not the White House, and that they are part of a larger investigation of gift tax compliance. Count us skeptical that a new targeted enforcement plan, likely coordinated between at least two of the highly compartmentalized divisions of the IRS, was just cooked up by some career guys.

But even if the Obama Administration doesn’t deserve primary credit for this idea to chill political activity, it will still serve the Democrats’ purpose in time for 2012 fundraising. A tax probe of donations given by a specific class of political donors is a boldfaced attempt to punish and discourage political speech.

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