It's Been 10 Years Since the IRS's Tea Party Scandal. Will Congress Finally Act?

The partisan and constitutional dangers of letting the IRS police speech are simply too great.


A bombshell revelation came to light 10 years ago this week in 2013, when the IRS apologized for years of deliberately delaying applications for tax-exempt status from right-of-center organizations. Hundreds of groups were improperly subjected to baseless investigations, invasive and improper demands about their donors, and lengthy delays in processing routine paperwork. The IRS's actions at the time put a severe chill on conservative speech at the height of the Tea Party movement and leading up to the 2012 presidential election.

The revelation set off years of investigations and resignations at the IRS. Yet the agency secretly continued its efforts to silence nonprofits disfavored by the agency's bureaucrats and political appointees. In November 2013, the IRS proposed new regulations that were nearly as damaging to the First Amendment as the targeting itself.

The agency proposed severe limits on issue speech by certain nonprofits, which would have forced many nonprofits to reclassify as political action committees and publicly expose their donors' names and home addresses. The IRS also solicited comments on potentially expanding the restrictions to cover trade associations and other groups in the future. After backlash from across the political spectrum, the proposal was withdrawn, but that victory does not change the sad fact that federal law governing nonprofits is no safer today than it was when IRS officials decided they had the authority to discriminate against groups based on their views.

Enter the American Confidence in Elections (ACE) Act, the subject of a full committee hearing tomorrow in the Committee on House Administration. The legislation addresses a broad range of election, free speech, and privacy-related issues, including remedies for the IRS's sordid history of policing speech. The bill, first introduced in 2022 and awaiting reintroduction this Congress, would prohibit the IRS from writing new speech-chilling rules for nonprofits and codify Trump-era reforms protecting nonprofit donors against unnecessary disclosures and warehousing of their personal information.

Some politicians and activists have pushed the IRS to regulate more, not less, when it comes to nonprofits that speak out about public policy and the views and actions of elected officials. They forget that campaigns are regulated by the Federal Election Commission, a bipartisan agency carefully designed to navigate the complex political and constitutional questions posed by government regulation of speech and advocacy. The IRS is a tax collection agency under the president's control with no authority to police campaign finance rules and no particular expertise in the First Amendment. The risk of accidentally or intentionally violating Americans' constitutional rights is much higher when the IRS, an agency without safeguards and infamous for its lack of accountability, is in charge of regulating political advocacy.

Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Rifle Association, and the NAACP have existed for generations without being forced to expose their supporters when criticizing elected officials for their actions or taking stances in public policy debates. These organizations represent millions of Americans while serving as a shield for people who are uncomfortable or unable to express their views publicly. As the Supreme Court has continually reaffirmed, the First Amendment protects the ability of all Americans to privately support the nonprofit causes of their choice. The privacy protections in the ACE Act would stop the IRS's next crackdown on free speech.

Every American has the right to support causes they believe in without fear of harassment, intimidation, or discrimination from the tax collector. Ten years after the IRS unveiled one of the most shameful scandals in its history, it's high time for Congress to offer lasting solutions.