The Republican mission to quell the IRS

The Republican mission to quell the IRS
© Greg Nash

It looks like any other slick political ad on your TV. There’s ominous music, a dramatic voice-over, a grainy picture of President Obama. But this isn’t just another campaign commercial. 

The news broke recently that a Republican mega-donor plans to spend about $1 million a week on ads calling on Congress to impeach John Koskinen, the commissioner of the IRS. It seems like an odd way to spend your millions. While it’s true that the IRS is the right’s favorite whipping boy, why the campaign-style ad blitz? 

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Well, in my years as a prosecutor, it’s become a habit to consider motive. So it got me thinking: What motive do the Republicans have to impeach the IRS commissioner? Maybe it’s just emotional acting-out against an agency they hate because it collects the taxes they hate. Maybe it’s an outbreak of political madness. 

Or maybe there is method to their madness. 

Let’s look at the Republican Party and how it is funded. While it raises a healthy amount for its campaign committees, Republicans and their allies depend increasingly on the super PACs and shadowy outside spending groups made possible by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision.

Since Citizens United, outside spending has become Republicans’ political oxygen. They are as dependent on dark money as a deep-sea diver on his air hose. This campaign cycle alone, conservative super PACs have received more than twice as much as liberal super PACs, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. 

Big conservative donors prefer dark-money groups, which allow donors to spend unlimited amounts to influence our elections while remaining completely anonymous. For instance, in 2014, the conservative group Americans for Prosperity aired 33,000 political ads, the vast majority aimed at Democrats and all of them impossible to trace back to the human being that paid for them. 

The Center for Responsive Politics reports that dark-money spending has increased dramatically every election cycle since Citizens United. So far, this presidential election cycle is up more than five times from the same point in the last presidential campaign. And all of our efforts in the Senate to shed some daylight on this dark money are crashing against a monolith of GOP opposition.

The dark-money groups, formed as tax-exempt 501(c)(4) nonprofits under the IRS code, weren’t supposed to do this kind of secret political spending. They were supposed to promote “social welfare” and “educate” the public on important issues. In fact, the IRS regulations state “the promotion of social welfare does not include direct or indirect participation or intervention in political campaigns on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office.” How could it be, then, that organizations that run tens of thousands of political ads qualify as social welfare organizations? 

The short answer is they probably don’t. 

An under-funded and harried IRS has been unwilling to police the activities of powerful social welfare groups after an effort to separate out new applicants blew up in its face. In 2013, the IRS signaled it would begin the process of drafting a rule to better enforce our laws limiting dark money in elections. It later put the rulemaking process on hold after an especially loud outcry from conservative groups. The agency also came under heavy fire in the press from conservatives and Republicans in Congress who feared having the hose to their political oxygen crimped. And since Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in 2011, they’ve worked to slash the IRS budget. Funding in 2016 was $11.2 billion, or 17 percent below 2010 levels, adjusted for inflation. 

So the dark-money floodgates remain wide open, deluging our politics in special-interest slime. 

The GOP’s crusade against Commissioner Koskinen may seem overblown, but it makes a lot of sense when you consider motive: Republicans need dark money, and dark money needs a cowering IRS. 

Whitehouse has served as senator of Rhode Island since 2007 and is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.