Wednesday, September 4, 2013 - by Stephen Fincher and Lamar Alexander
The Internal Revenue Service violated the First Amendment rights of the American people — and their trust — when it targeted conservative political groups in Tennessee and around the country for additional scrutiny during the 2012 election. As Congress investigates just how deeply the problem goes, it’s important to make sure those responsible are held accountable, so that the American people can trust their government.
But how can we make sure this never happens again? How do we make sure you are not afraid to be politically active? So many people have told us they are afraid to be politically active for fear of repercussions.
One way is to enable you to do as President Ronald Reagan often advised: “Trust, but verify.”
That’s why we’ve introduced the “IRS Abuse Protection Act,” which would require the federal government to inform taxpayers when the Internal Revenue Service accesses their information. Under our legislation, the secretary of the U.S. Treasury would have to notify, in writing, taxpayers each time the IRS accesses their tax accounts, tax returns or other tax return information.
The notice must include who accessed the information, the purpose of doing so and how the information was accessed. Taxpayers also would receive a copy of the information accessed and any report issued on how it was used.
You’d have the information you need to keep an eye on the IRS any time it’s poking around in your business. The idea that the IRS could target a person or group based on political belief is an infringement upon our liberty that should alarm every American. The IRS needs to back off. The IRS needs to know that if it goes snooping it will be held responsible.
This is the United States of America, where the First Amendment protects our right to organize and speak up and speak out. When the IRS targeted conservative and other groups — including tea party groups in Tennessee — for additional scrutiny because of their politics it created what amounted to an enemies list to keep people quiet.
It was alarming when word surfaced in the spring of 2012 that the IRS was targeting organizations based on ideology. When the IRS made its shocking acknowledgment of such activity earlier this year, we felt it was appropriate for Congress to investigate — and for the Obama administration to comply with all requests related to congressional inquiries without delay. But now, and going forward, Congress needs to find a way to make sure this doesn’t happen again, that your information is never used against you and you never feel intimidated to not speak out.
News reports suggest the risk remains very real. According to the Washington Times, the Tea Party Patriots — a national group that first applied for its tax-exempt status back in 2010 — continues to face improper scrutiny.
Citing a letter it obtained that was sent by the IRS in August to the Tea Party Patriots, the Times reports that the IRS has made “a laundry list of requests related to virtually all the group’s activities, including its involvement in the 2012 election cycle and its get-out-the-vote efforts, fundraising activities, all radio and TV advertising, and other information. … The IRS also is asking for detailed financial records, including ‘the amounts and percentages of your total expenses that were for fundraising activities in the tax year 2011, 2012 and 2013.’ ”
There are still questions that need answering. But rather than wait for the Obama administration to provide answers — or, for that matter, for Congress to extract them — we think it’s time taxpayers be better able to stand up for themselves. Perhaps if they’re armed with the information our legislation would require the federal government to disclose, taxpayers could head off unfair targeting by the IRS before it gets anywhere.
That would put the First Amendment — our constitutional right to organize and to speak up and speak out — right back where it belongs: in the hands of the American people.
Stephen Fincher and Lamar Alexander