By Mike Lillis
The scandal surrounding the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) underscores the need for Congress to minimize the role of money in politics, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) argued Thursday.
The IRS is under heavy fire from both parties following recent revelations that some in the agency singled out conservative groups for extra scrutiny when they applied for a certain tax-exempt status.
Pelosi condemned those actions Thursday, saying those responsible "were wrong and must be held accountable." But the Democratic leader was also quick to link the scandal to the broader issue of campaign finance, arguing that the episode would never have happened if Congress overhauled the system to eliminate so-called 501(c)(4) groups altogether.
Those groups, which do not have to disclose their donors, have gained power and prominence since the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision empowered them to participate directly in elections provided they focus primarily on "social welfare" and not candidate advocacy.
"These actions highlight why we must overturn Citizens United," Pelosi told reporters in the Capitol. "There is a very thin line … that these so-called 'social welfare' organizations must make their priority promoting social welfare, rather than engaging in politics. Clearly, this has not been [the case].
"I paint everybody with the same brush, right to left," she added. "I think it all should go."
The IRS controversy saw its first casualty Wednesday when Steven Miller was forced out as the agency's acting commissioner. The episode has also energized conservatives who have long charged the Obama administration with executive overreach, and it's reignited the partisan debate over the role of money in politics.
Democrats like Pelosi say the controversy should compel Congress to put new limitations on campaign spending. They're pushing the Disclose Act, which would roll back parts of the Citizens United decision by forcing corporations to reveal all political contributions above $10,000 and take public credit for the political ads they sponsor.
"Who are these people? They go to the 501(c)(4) because they don't have to have any disclosure," Pelosi said Thursday. "Their shareholders, their customers, their employees don't have to know where this money is going."
Republicans are using the IRS scandal to argue just the opposite position. They say any limits on corporate campaign spending infringes on the First Amendment and they're pushing back against the Disclose Act for that reason.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday that the proposal "is designed to give the IRS even more power directly to quiet the voices of the critics of this administration."
"Even corporations have a right to engage in the political debate," McConnell said.
A former Democratic leadership aide said this week that the IRS scandal will make it much tougher for the party to move campaign finance reform in the near future. Such legislation, the former aide said, "will be seen as politically motivated rather than trying to clean things up."