WASHINGTON - The Internal Revenue Service is caught in an election-year struggle between Democratic lawmakers pressing for a crackdown on nonprofit political groups and conservative organizations accusing the tax agency of conducting a politically charged witch hunt.
In recent weeks, the IRS has sent dozens of detailed, lengthy questionnaires to Tea Party movement organizations applying for nonprofit tax status, demanding to know their political leanings and activities.
The agency plans this year to press nonprofits such as American Crossroads, on the Republican side, and Priorities USA, on the Democratic side, to justify their tax-protected status as “social welfare’’ organizations, a status that many tax professionals believe is being abused.
Senate Democrats are readying a fresh legislative push to demand that such groups disclose their donors and attach disclaimers to their political advertising identifying the advertisement’s primary funders.
“The shadowy attack ads we see every day should be brought into the light,’’ said Senator Michael Bennet, Democrat of Colorado.
The pushback is likely to be just as fierce. Jay Sekulow, a conservative lawyer known more for his stands on religious freedom than for his tax work, said he is representing 16 Tea Party groups that are asserting harassment by the IRS, and the number is growing.
“This is obviously a coordinated effort by the IRS to stifle these Tea Party and Tea Party-affiliated groups, and to stifle free speech activities,’’ Sekulow said. “It’s as onerous as what they did to the NAACP in the 1950s, and I plan to make that point.’’
At issue are groups large and small formed as 501(c)(4)s under the tax code, a designation created for social welfare groups but which includes overtly political organizations.