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June 20, 2014

In Kerfuffle Over IRS Emails, Congress Ignores Solutions on the Horizon 

 New Rules Could Prevent Abuse, Provide Clarity for Charities 

WASHINGTON, D.C. – As House lawmakers prepare to interrogate IRS Commissioner John Koskinen once again over last year’s profiling scandal, they should keep in mind that the IRS is working to establish a bright-line rule that would prevent similar incidents, Public Citizen said today.

The agency is seeking to establish a clear definition of political activity for nonprofits. Such a rule could eliminate the unacceptable “facts and circumstances” standard that led to IRS employees using inappropriate criteria to select certain organizations for further review based on the words in their name, Public Citizen said. Koskinen is scheduled to appear Monday before the House Committee on Ways and Means to answer questions about missing emails.

In November 2013, the IRS and the Treasury Department began a rulemaking that would clarify the definition of political activity for 501(c)(4) organizations. After receiving more than 160,000 comments, the IRS decided to revise the proposed rule. 

“Legislators are losing sight of the real goal here,” said Lisa Gilbert, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division and manager of the Bright Lines Project, which advocates clear, fair rules that would apply to all nonprofits. “Lawmakers should stop focusing on the past and start considering real solutions to ensure that we don’t repeat it, and to ensure that similar events never happen again.”

In an interview this week with the Center for Public Integrity, Koskinen said new rules could be proposed in early 2015. Those rules will address the most important issues brought up during a comment period that began in November 2013.

“There are three issues: What should be the definition, to whom should it apply and how much … can you do before you jeopardize your exemption?” Koskinen said in the interview. He said the goal was to create “regulations that are fair to everyone, clear and easy to administer.”

“The revision presents an opportunity for the IRS to craft a rule that gives nonprofits what they’ve needed for years – bright-line definitions of political activity, applicable to all nonprofits,” said Emily Peterson-Cassin, Public Citizen’s Bright Lines Project coordinator.  “The real scandal would be to leave these vague standards in place despite such a strong message from nonprofits that new rules are needed.”

Public Citizen’s Bright Lines Project has been working to create clear, fair rules that would apply to all nonprofits and encourage nonpartisan civic engagement while removing opportunities for abuse. 

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