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Few qualities are more American than a zeal for fair play. That’s why, when reports emerged last spring that the Internal Revenue Service was targeting conservative groups applying for a certain tax-exempt status, fair-minded folks of all political stripes expressed outrage.
Far from being a fringe conspiracy theory, the discovery of government-sanctioned bias against conservative organizations requesting 501(c)(4) status was reported by none other than the IRS’ own inspector general.
Since that discovery, several IRS employees — including the acting commissioner — have resigned, and the House of Representatives, the Senate and the Department of Justice are each conducting investigations.
But despite the scorching questioning of IRS leaders and well-founded condemnation from all corners, the agency still has not learned its lesson on impartiality. What the IRS can’t do with permission it seems determined to do by fiat.
On Nov. 29, 2013, the agency published a proposed rule that would further trample on the free-speech rights of 501(c)(4) organizations and restrict their activities. The rule singles out the same conservative groups previously targeted by the IRS and threatens to limit their participation in a host of advocacy and educational activities, even nonpartisan voter-registration and education drives.
These activities have a clear role in promoting civic engagement and social welfare — the exact purpose of the 501(c)(4) designation. The IRS’ proposed rule would force groups such as the National Taxpayers Union and the American Civil Liberties Union to quit such activities or risk losing their tax-exempt status.
Proponents of the rule claim it is necessary to clear up “confusion” about tax exemption and to bring greater transparency to political spending. This is little more than a convenient cover to quiet conservative critics while leaving others free to engage in political discourse. The administration should pay attention to the liberal groups denouncing this proposed rule and its detrimental impact.
The ACLU slammed the rule as producing “the same structural issues at the IRS that led to the use of inappropriate criteria in the selection of various charitable and social welfare groups for undue scrutiny.” The Alliance for Justice Action Campaign and even the Sierra Club have been equally critical.
In three months, more than 140,000 comments were submitted, the most for any rule-making.
To halt this latest attempt to quash free speech, I introduced the Stop Targeting of Political Beliefs by the IRS Act, which would prohibit for one year the finalization of this proposed rule.
It would also prevent additional targeting of 501(c)(4) groups by restoring the IRS standards and definitions that were in place before the agency began going after conservative organizations.
The House of Representatives recently passed an identical bill, and the Senate legislation already has 40 co-sponsors. It deserves the support of the full Senate.
However, Democrats have refused to allow the bill to come to the floor for debate and a vote. And President Obama has issued a veto threat against it.
That threat is a clearly disproportionate response to legislation aimed at protecting free-speech rights of conservatives and liberals alike. It also demonstrates how badly the Obama administration wants to sweep this problem under the rug while silencing any remaining critics.
My bill is simple and fair: It merely suspends new IRS rule-making regarding 501(c)(4) groups until the ongoing investigations are completed. When a powerful government agency has a problem with bias and abuse, that’s exactly what Congress should be doing — and the least the public should expect — until this issue is resolved.
Jeff Flake is a Republican senator from Arizona.
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