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May 7, 2014

House Should Stop Partisan Bickering Over Lerner and Focus on Bright Line Rules Instead

Legislators Should Focus on Solutions: Changes to Vague Definition of Political Activity

WASHINGTON, D.C. – As the U.S. House of Representatives votes to hold former IRS official Lois Lerner in contempt this week, legislators should shift their focus to the IRS’ attempt to clarify the vague standards that led to the “scandal” of last year, Public Citizen said today.

The IRS proposed new rules in November that seek to resolve the ambiguity of standards governing political activity of nonprofits. Congressional lawmakers should focus their energy on improving the rules and moving them through the process, not partisan bickering, Public Citizen said.

“With clearer, objective rules, future applicants will have concrete standards in place when they apply for nonprofit status,” said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division. “It’s time for legislators to stop focusing on Lois Lerner and start focusing on solutions to the problem that allowed this to happen in the first place.”

Added Lisa Gilbert, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division and manager of the organization’s Bright Lines Project, “Despite this ongoing and vicious criticism, the IRS and Department of Treasury have admirably remained focused on their goal – clarifying the standard for what constitutes political activity for nonprofits.”

Under the current rule, the use of subjective evaluation hinders the agency from enforcing the rules, and can encourage it to make bad decisions on how to make those evaluations. The IRS has said it will hold hearings on the proposed rule this summer and likely will revise the rule to respond to a record number of public comments.

“The IRS should be applauded for tackling these thorny issues, and for its willingness to be flexible and revise the proposal,” Gilbert said. “The rules should be easy to understand and hard to game.”

Even if the rulemaking were to end, the IRS would still need to write new guidelines for how to define nonprofit political activity to educate the agents who will make those fact-intensive decisions. That eventuality is exactly what those opposed to the rulemaking should fear: Instead of a rule produced with ample public input, the IRS would write a rule for itself without any public input at all.

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