IRS Chief: I Don't Want to Be Seen As Influencing 2016

Watching closely are groups organized under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code, such as Republican-leaning Americans for Prosperity.

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Internal Revenue Service Commissioner John Koskinen (C) is sworn in before the House Oversight and Government Reform's Economic Growth, Job Creation, and Regulatory Affairs Subcommittee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill September 17, 2014 in Washington, DC.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Rules from the Internal Revenue Service that would limit nonprofit groups' involvement in politics may not be enforced before the 2016 election, IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said Tuesday.

The tax agency's first attempt at those rules—released in November 2013—flopped amid criticism from groups across the political spectrum, which complained that limits on pre-election ads and voter guides would constrain free speech. The IRS withdrew that plan in May 2014 and hasn't offered a new version.

"It's not clear when we're going to be able to get to it," Koskinen told reporters after testifying at the Senate Finance Committee. "My only focus on 2016 is to make sure that whatever we do, it doesn't look like we're trying to influence the 2016 election."

Watching closely are groups organized under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code, such as Republican-leaning Americans for Prosperity and Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies. For now, those groups can get involved in politics as long as it isn't their primary activity—and they can do so without disclosing their donors and with relatively little threat of punitive action from the IRS.

Koskinen didn't commit to a specific timeline and he didn't completely rule out the possibility that the IRS would act before 2016.

"If we change it, it's a change for a long time," he said. "And so it ought not to be influenced by whether it's going to have an effect on one election or another."

But he noted all the steps that the IRS still has to go through. The agency must propose a rule, allow time for comments, hold a public hearing, change the plan in response to comments, and then give groups time to adjust to any new system.

Koskinen said that the IRS won't back away altogether from the idea of new rules and that he wants to give groups more clarity about how much political activity they can undertake, rather than the "mushy, kind of unknown process" the IRS uses now.

"We can come up with a system that would be fair to everybody, and clear, much clearer than we are now," he said.

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