A Senate investigative panel led by Democrat Carl Levin of Michigan and Republican John McCain of Arizona has been reviewing the use of social welfare groups for political causes for the past year and now is examining the agency's handling of the tax-exempt reviews.
And in a letter to congressional investigators Thursday, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., urged the House Ways and Means Committee not to ignore the influx of groups that may be abusing the tax code as part of its upcoming IRS probe, saying: "I hope we can remove the incentive for any group, regardless of its political orientation, to seek 501(c)(4) tax-exempt status to engage in significant political campaign activities while hiding their donors."
Despite the bipartisan outcry over the IRS scandal, there's little incentive for lawmakers on either side of the aisle to push for reforms because Republicans and Democrats alike benefit from these big outside groups.
In fact, just the opposite may be happening.
Some congressional Democrats, fearful of being tied to the scandal, are backing the push for more aggressive enforcement of these groups. And some conservative leaders and Republican donors are using the IRS scandal to help protect the status quo while preparing to pump hundreds of millions of dollars - raised anonymously in many cases with no contribution limits - into the next election cycle, just as they did last fall.
"I would hope that this new information about the politicization of the IRS should put the brakes on any sort of disclosure of donors who wish to remain anonymous," said Charlie Spies, who helps raise money for several conservative organizations and previously led the super political action committee that raised more than $140 million to benefit Mitt Romney's presidential bid. "We're now seeing exactly what the risk is for donors to be disclosed."
At least some tea party groups are unwilling to trust the agency with more enforcement power in the wake of such damaging revelations.
"The IRS' integrity is shattered," said Jenny Beth Martin, chairman of the Tea Party Patriots, which was among the largest nonprofit conservative groups the IRS targeted. She said that now, more than ever, donors need freedom to give money anonymously "without fear of retribution" from a politicized IRS. In the meantime, she says her organization's influence is growing, fueled by anonymous unlimited donations.
Wertheimer, of Democracy 21, said the "laundering of secret money into elections" will become a greater scandal than IRS misconduct unless something is done.
"There will be efforts to sweep this under the rug," he said. "They may succeed on a temporary basis for a relatively short period, but they are not going to succeed in the long term."
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