How congressional Republicans are trying use the IRS to stay united

February 24

Congress returns to Washington this week for another three-week stretch that will take them all the way to a St. Patrick's Day recess in mid-March. With a budget passed, a spending deal approved and other leftover work from 2013 completed, lawmakers are increasingly turning their attention toward the midterm elections.

That's why this week is "Stop Government Abuse Week" in the House. House Republicans plan to hold votes this week on 12 measures that they say are designed to curtail government abuse and address some of the best-known recent scandals at federal agencies.


House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.). (Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA)

The bills are written by a mix of the House GOP's most senior members and up-and-coming rank-and-filers: Reps. Virginia Foxx (N.C.), Dave Camp (Mich.), Bob Goodlatte (Va.), Doug Collins (Ga.), Spencer Bachus (Ala.), George Holding (N.C.), Darrell Issa (Calif.), James Lankford (Okla.), Billy Long (Mo.) and James Sensenbrenner (Wis.).

Camp's bill, called the "Stop Targeting of Political Beliefs by the IRS Act," would prevent the Obama administration from implementing new rules that define what constitutes political activities for "social welfare" groups organized under the 501(c)(4) section of the tax code. The bill was approved by the House Ways and Means Committee about two weeks ago, and a similar version has been introduced by Republicans in the Senate.

The Treasury Department is pushing for the new rules, but they've received more than 23,000 public comments, most of them critical. While conservative Republicans believe the new rules would constrain opponents of President Obama, even liberal groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, believe that the regulations could cause serious free-speech problems.

Another bill set for debate and passage this week is Holding's ALERT Act, which would force agency heads to submit monthly reports on proposed federal rules or regulations their agency is working on. Currently the federal government is required by law to release each agency's new proposed regulations twice annually, but Republicans say that the administration has regularly failed to do so. Instead, they're pushing to require agencies to release new proposed regulations each month.

"In order for our economy to grow and businesses to prosper, we should take steps to ensure that they are given sufficient notice of regulations, and have time to adjust their business practices in anticipation of regulatory changes," Holding said last year. He added that his proposal "increases government transparency by requiring the administration to fully detail the effects of regulations, and make things easier on small business owners.”

Another popular GOP proposal is the "Taxpayer Right-to-Know Act." It's sponsored by Lankford, who's now running to succeed the retiring Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) in the Senate. The measure would require federal agencies to issue an annual inventory of all programs administered, the number of workers employed and whether any of their programs potentially duplicate similar programs at other agencies. The bill speaks to a simple conservative concern championed in recent years by Coburn and other government watchdogs: That the federal government too often allows too many agencies to do the same thing.

If these types of bills sound familiar, they should. House Republicans held a similar "Stop Government Abuse Week" last July right before the month-long summer recess so that rank-and-file GOP lawmakers could go home and talk about what they were trying to do to curb the size, scope and perceived overreach of the administration just a few weeks after the IRS targeting scandal burst onto the scene.

But this year's anti-abuse week is more directly aligned with midterm politics and easing tensions in Republican ranks.

As The Post's Robert Costa recently reported, Republicans are focused on calming their often divided caucus in the months ahead, mostly by touting proposals that have wide backing within the GOP. These 12 bills do that and likely will force dozens of vulnerable House Democrats to break ranks and vote with Republicans.

Will any of these proposals ever be passed by the Democratic-controlled Senate and become law? Likely not. But will they generate support among GOP base voters, helping Republican lawmakers score political points back home? Absolutely -- and that's the point.

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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