Congress Must Reform the IRS

There are two things the Democrats do very well: They organize diverse broad grassroots constituencies to advocate for or against policies that impact their voters and they use government to implement legislative policies that support the volunteers who helped get them elected.

While Republicans have not traditionally done as well at galvanizing a broad constituency, they do not in the broader sense view government as the solution to aiding their traditional base. Thus, their base often does not receive the same value from the very government which their tax dollars go to support.

With control of all three branches of government, Republicans can both expand their base and utilize government in the manner that adds value to the very supporters that elected them to power.

As a myriad of new conservative grassroots organizations gained prominence such as the tea party movement, the Democrats correctly concluded – Republicans were starting to gain ground as it relates to organizing at the grassroots level. In response, the Democrats strategically used the levers of government to ensure that these new organizations operated within the confines of Internal Revenue Service guidelines. Towards this end one such tool that was wielded is what the IRS referrers to as “Schedule B.”

Under “Schedule B,” nonprofits, including political nonprofits, must file a report with their annual tax filings that lists major donors and the amounts they donated. Using this policy, the political party in control of the IRS at any given time can use the law to ensure that the list of donors becomes public, and the state attorney and government employees too often demand copies of the list for political purposes.

Albeit well-intended, the unintended consequence of “Schedule B,” is whichever party controlling the administration at such time can use the list to create heartaches for the nonprofit’s donors.

Congress currently can reform a system that has been used to stifle grassroots advocacy and free speech and a create a system that Abraham Lincoln spoke of: “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

In the next few days, the House of Representatives will be marking up an IRS reform bill. Right now, there is nothing in that bill prohibiting the IRS from further abuses of the “Schedule B” system. Congress should abolish the requirement that political nonprofits produce a list of their donors.

Although we have disagreed on many issues we believe the right to protect those who would use their resources to support these nonprofits need to be protected from partisan politics. We must ensure our government works for the people not against its people. For example, one of the IRS’ first targets in the 1950s was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was subjected to a searching IRS audit because of his religious advocacy for civil rights for African-Americans.

Billy Graham, the famed Christian evangelist, publicly advocated on behalf of a ballot measure in his home state of North Carolina, taking a position that the president and other high government officials publicly opposed. The IRS was knocking at the door almost immediately.

Are such actions our nation’s outstanding public servants just doing their job or political scores being settled. We may never know, which is why we are calling on Congress and community leaders from both side of the aisle to support Rep. Peter Roskam’s bill aimed at stopping this abuse. This bill, H.R. 4916, the Preventing IRS Abuse and Protecting Free Speech Act would abolish the requirement that nonprofits turn over very sensitive taxpayer information. This one simple act would protect taxpayers from the unintended consequence of “Schedule B.”

Our nation’s nonprofit organizations are too critical to the fabric of our nation’s most vulnerable neighborhoods. So as Congress debates this issue we encourage them to follow the words of John F. Kennedy: “Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer.”

Michael Steele is the former chair of the Republican National Committee and former lieutenant governor of Maryland. Edolphus “Ed” Towns Jr. is a former Democratic congressman from New York, serving from 1983-2013, who served as chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee from 2009-2011.

Morning Consult welcomes op-ed submissions on policy, politics and business strategy in our coverage areas. Updated submission guidelines can be found here.

Morning Consult