Congress Must Act Quickly to End IRS Abuse and Protect Donor Privacy

Over the past year, we’ve witnessed a welcome campaign of deregulation and government reform from the Trump administration and Congress, with palpably positive results.

The most fearsome federal agency of all, however, remains in desperate need of permanent reform.

That agency, the Internal Revenue Service, maintains an infamous record of targeting American citizens across the political spectrum. Recall its abuses during the Watergate era under former President Richard Nixon, or the Lois Lerner scandal under former President Barack Obama.

More recently, we’ve become all too familiar with horror stories of the IRS or malicious outside actors targeting American citizens simply for holding political or religious opinions considered unfashionable.

As just one recent example, private data on donors to the National Organization for Marriage was outrageously leaked. As another example, hyper-partisan state attorneys general like Eric Schneiderman of New York, doing his best Eliot Spitzer impression, have demanded access to the confidential donor information relating to organizations engaged in the climate change debate. They simply cannot stand reasoned deliberation, so they target organizations and citizens who question their global warming orthodoxy.

Other examples with which Americans are by now all too familiar abound.  Private citizens who did nothing more than contribute even small amounts to organizations whose missions they support have been driven from their places of employment, stalked and harassed at their home addresses and suffered online targeting.

And then there’s the problem of rogue IRS officials themselves targeting citizens and organizations, as illustrated by Lois Lerner during the Obama Administration.

More than any other bureaucracy, the IRS has earned its reputation as a serial violator of Americans’ privacy.

Fortunately, Congress can help put an end to IRS abuse by passing legislation protecting the privacy of donors to nonprofit organizations, and eliminating the possibility of future targeting by IRS officials, state attorneys general or outside hackers. 

But it must act quickly.

Currently, the IRS inexplicably requires private nonprofit organizations to file what’s known as a 990 Schedule B form. That form contains names, addresses and other sensitive personal information on many of the organizations’ donors, which obviously exposes them to targeting and abuse if revealed.

Curiously, however, federal law also prohibits the IRS from using the information contained on the form for any substantive purpose.

So why does the IRS continue to collect and maintain information that it’s not even allowed to use?

To alleviate that ongoing danger, the House of Representatives last Congress successfully passed a bill entitled the “Preventing IRS Abuse and Protecting Free Speech Act,” and conservative Tim Scott (R-S.C.) introduced similar legislation in the Senate.  The bill sought to finally prohibit the IRS from forcing nonprofit organizations to surrender their confidential donors’ identifying information.

Earlier this year, the exact same legislation under the same title was introduced in the new Congress as H.R. 4916 by Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.). It’s therefore incumbent upon senators to introduce companion legislation for signature by a sympathetic White House.

With government funding set to expire on March 23, senators and representatives can include the bill’s protections in the legislation that would continue funding federal operations. Doing so will offer a victory that they can show to conservative and libertarian voters otherwise opposed to what will inevitably be a largely disagreeable bill.

This is an issue that garners unanimous support among conservatives and libertarians, so failure to act now would be inexcusable. As House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has observed, now is the time to “fix this nation’s tax code once and for all.”

That includes putting an end to IRS abuse of private donor information, which chills Americans’ First Amendment freedoms of speech, association and political participation.

It’s simply unacceptable that vindictive government officials, snooping employers, disagreeable neighbors or anyone with a partisan axe to grind can potentially exploit private information such as donors’ names, addresses, phone numbers, employers and other vulnerabilities, which is collected for no substantive purpose, to persecute fellow Americans solely on the basis of political opposition.

Congress must capitalize on this fleeting opportunity to secure IRS reform and protect donor privacy, lest it face voter wrath for failing to act while it had the chance.

Timothy Lee is senior vice president of legal and public affairs at the Center for Individual Freedom.

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