WASHINGTON — As the 2012 presidential election race heated up, Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado led a Democratic effort to scrutinize and curb the reach of tax-exempt organizations, which he identified with a conservative leader and suggested would grow after the Republican presidential primary ended.
Bennet was a leader of an ad hoc Senate Democratic group that lobbied federal officials and lawmakers repeatedly to limit the effect of a 2010 Supreme Court ruling on the political system.
Named after “Citizens United” — the high court decision that ruled government could not restrict the politically independent expenditures of corporations, labor unions, and associations — Bennet’s task force announced its intentions during a period when former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney had emerged as the likely presidential nominee of the Republican Party.
“The group will pursue all available legislative and administrative avenues to shine a light on who is influencing American elections and to stem the tide of secretive spending that is already a corroding and corrupting influence on our political system,” the seven Democratic senators wrote on March 13, 2012. “The rate of spending will likely only increase as the Republican primary ends, the general election begins in earnest, and congressional races heat up.”
Bennet served many roles within the Citizens United task force. He was an original co sponsor of a constitutional amendment to grant Congress and the states the right to regulate the campaign finance system. He managed debate on the Senate floor in July 2012 for legislation to require increased disclosure from tax-exempt and political organizations.
And after the group wrote a letter to the Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service that urged the agency to investigate possible abuses by tax-exempt groups, he released a press statement on February 16, 2012 that cited an organization that a former campaign official for President George W. Bush founded as an example of a group cloaking its political intent.
“(I)t’s common knowledge that (Karl Rove’s) organization exists to elect and defeat specific political candidates,” Bennet’s press release said.
The tax agency has admitted that it targeted groups applying for tax-exempt status that had the conservative-sounding names “Tea Party,” “Patriot,” and “9/12.” Although IRS officials said their intent was not partisan, the Obama administration has struggled to distance itself from accusations that it used the IRS for political gain.
On Tuesday, the Senate Finance Committee heard from the previous two commissioners of the IRS as well as the author of the report for the inspector general of the tax division of the Treasury Department. Bennet’s membership on that committee, which oversees the IRS, has raised the ire of conservatives.
Last week, the chairman of the Colorado Republican Party urged Bennet to recuse himself from the committee’s investigations into the IRS scandal.
“Sen. Bennet played a role in pressuring the IRS to investigate conservative groups,” Ryan Call said. “It is inappropriate for Sen. Bennet to investigate the very scandal in which it appears he had a role.”
Bennet aides dismissed the charge. Bennet spokesman Adam Bozzi noted the February 16 and March 13 letters to then-IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman do not mention conservative-leaning organizations that qualify under section 501 (c) 4 of the IRS code.
“The thrust of them is (the IRS) should enforce the law,” Bozzi said in an interview last week. “They were not partisan or ideological.”
Based on publicly available documents, Bennet and the other six Democratic senators did not ask the IRS to single out conservative or Republican organizations directly. Yet their press releases singled out Republicans, especially Bennet’s. The senator’s releases make no mention of liberal or even centrist organizations failing to comply with the law.
Bennet has sought to emphasize his bipartisan credentials on taxes, immigration and spending. He has joined several informal bipartisan “gangs” that seek to craft legislation to address large-scale problems. But his work with the Citizens United task force undercuts this image. The ad hoc group had no Republican members and did not appeal to Republican support in their statements.
After the IRS scandal broke, senators from both parties suggested the task force’s public statements crossed the line into partisanship. “They probably wish they could have some of those letters back,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said in an interview Thursday.
“What’s important is not who violated the law but rather the violation itself,” Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon said in an interview the same day.
Bennet was the lone member of the Democratic task force who did not sit on the Finance Committee. The other members were Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Al Franken of Minnesota, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Tom Udall of New Mexico, and Charles Schumer of New York.
After President Obama was re-elected last November and Bennet agreed to serve as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, he was named a member of the panel.
Meanwhile, President Obama has portrayed Bennet as a non-partisan Democrat, even after he borrowed the senator’s successful electoral strategy in 2010 for his re-election last November.
At a DNC fundraising event in Atlanta Sunday, the Democratic president urged voters to elect more representatives like Michael Bennet “who are not ideological,” according to a press pool report. “If we can get a critical mass in the Senate and folks like that in the House, then the sky is the limit. Nothing can stop us.”