Donor Privacy and Ending IRS Abuse: A No-Brainer for Congressional Republicans

“We’ve learned through both recent and more distant experience that the IRS simply cannot be trusted not to target American citizens on the basis of political belief, nor can it be trusted to safeguard sensitive information on nonprofit organizations and their donors that serves no substantive IRS purpose.”

BY TIMOTHY H. LEE  /  CFIF

On both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, Congressional Republicans and the Trump Administration are increasingly desperate to score a legislative victory and placate restive conservatives.

Fortunately for them, there’s a quick and simple way to accomplish both.

The proposal at issue is legislation to protect the privacy of donors to nonprofit organizations and prohibit future abuse by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and other governmental authorities with access to sensitive donor information.

It won’t cost taxpayers a dime, it won’t threaten anyone’s benefits, it claims unanimous support among the conservative movement, it strengthens First Amendment freedoms and it even already passed the House during the last Congress.

And as icing on the cake, it corrects one of the most notorious abuses of the Obama Administration and targets the perennially unpopular and occasionally rogue IRS.

Under current law, the IRS collects sensitive private information on nonprofit groups and their donors through what’s known as a “990 Schedule B” form.  That document lists the names, addresses and other intimate information of certain donors, which in turn makes private citizens vulnerable to targeting and abuse if exposed for simply supporting causes in which they believe.

Predictably, IRS collection and retention of that information has resulted in persecution and targeting by not only IRS and other government officials, but also hackers, cyberstalkers and political extremists unwilling to tolerate conservative or libertarian beliefs in society.

In recent years, confidential donor records for the National Organization for Marriage were outrageously leaked, and liberal state attorneys general have demanded access to confidential donor information in their politicized global warming crusade.  Elsewhere across the nation, private citizens have been fired from their jobs, harassed at their homes and targeted by IRS officials like Lois Lerner.  Merely by collecting and maintaining donor profiles, the IRS opens the door to vindictive government officials, employers, neighbors or anyone with a grudge to obtain such sensitive information in order to target others out of sheer political disagreement.

Here’s the curious thing:  Applicable law prohibits the IRS from actually using the sensitive information it collects for any meaningful purpose.

Which triggers the question:  Why should the IRS be allowed to collect and maintain it at all?

There’s simply no justification for it, and Congress should act to eliminate this danger once and for all.

The good news is that last year, the House of Representatives passed a bill entitled the “Preventing IRS Abuse and Protecting Free Speech Act” to accomplish that goal.  On the Senate side, Tim Scott (R – South Carolina) introduced similar legislation prohibiting the IRS from forcing nonprofit organizations to surrender their confidential donors’ identifying information.  As Congressman Peter Roskam (R – Illinois), sponsor of the House-passed legislation, summarized at the time:

We voted to eliminate a confidential form the IRS proved incapable of securing.  The agency has said it doesn’t even need this form for tax administration in the first place.  Either one of these facts should be reason enough to eliminate an onerous regulation.  In this case, we have both. 

What distinguishes this year from last, of course, is that a president willing to sign such legislation now occupies the White House.

The bill accords with U.S. Supreme Court precedent, which ruled in NAACP v. Alabama (1958) that state officials could not compel the group to surrender sensitive membership data.  In a unanimous decision, the Court recognized that forcing the NAACP to provide the information inherently threatened its mission and existence:

“This Court has recognized the vital relationship between freedom to associate and privacy in one’s associations.  Compelled disclosure of membership in an organization engaged in advocacy of particular beliefs is of the same order.  Inviolability of privacy in group association may in many circumstances be indispensable to preservation of freedom of association, particularly where a group espouses dissident beliefs.” 

That remains true today, even if the Supreme Court has proved less reliable in protecting those freedoms in ensuing decades.

Which is exactly why Congress must pass legislation ending this IRS practice, which President Trump should sign into law.

The same bill already passed through committee and regular order last year, so there’s no need to start from scratch.

We’ve learned through both recent and more distant experience that the IRS simply cannot be trusted not to target American citizens on the basis of political belief, nor can it be trusted to safeguard sensitive information on nonprofit organizations and their donors that serves no substantive IRS purpose.

This is a no-brainer for Congressional Republicans and the White House, and there’s simply no reason to allow the risk of abuse by future administrations, IRS officials, state bureaucrats or vindictive hackers to fester.

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