WASHINGTON – Speaking softly from the podium,Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell,R-Ky.,leveled some heavy charges against the Obama administration.
At a talk Friday at the American Enterprise Institute,a conservative think tank,McConnell spoke about what he perceives as a growing threat to citizens’ free speech in light of the recent IRS scandal,when the agency was found to be targeting certain political groups for closer scrutiny,such as local tea party groups.
McConnell accused the Obama administration of desperately trying to prove nobody at the top was involved.
“This administration has institutionalized the practice of putting bureaucrats against the very people they’re supposed to be serving,” he said.
But the biggest fireworks came when Norm Ornstein,a resident scholar at AEI,stood to ask a question. He had barely finished introducing himself when McConnell – with a smile – laid into him.
“I’ve enjoyed dueling you,Norm,over the years,” McConnell said wryly. “You’ve been consistently wrong on almost everything.”
The audience laughed and applauded,but McConnell was far from through.
“I’ve always wondered,who eats lunch with you over here?”
Ornstein had yet to ask his question. And McConnell didn’t let up.
“Actually,” McConnell said,“some of the worst things that have been said about me over the years have been said by Norm Ornstein.
“And you’ve been entirely wrong on virtually every occasion,” he said,finally adding,“I’m glad to see you. What’s on your mind?”
When Ornstein finally got a word in,he replied in kind.
“Well,some of the worst things that have been said about me have been said by you,” Ornstein said. The laughter in the room became a little less comfortable.
Ornstein asked the Senate minority leader about an appearance on “Meet the Press” in 2000,when he said McConnell defended disclosing political donors. The question seemed to stoke the ire of the minority leader.
“That’s not accurate,” McConnell said,interrupting him.
“With regards to disclosure,you’d have to go back the 1980s to find the time when I suggested it,” he said. “And I did,and I was wrong about it and I’ve been correct for 25 years now. I don’t know how far back you have to go.”
Ornstein pressed McConnell on another point,asking if he agreed with the law’s definition that 501(c)(4) tax-exempt organizations must be exclusively social welfare organizations. The groups can accept unlimited donations but must report donations over $5,000 to the IRS.
He asked if McConnell thought two groups organized under the law,Organizing for America,founded by president-elect Barack Obama to promote his legislative priorities,and Crossroads GPS,founded by Republican campaign strategist Karl Rove,were exclusively social welfare organizations.
The debate over the status of 501(c)(4) groups has been raging since the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United,allowing corporations and other groups to make unlimited and undisclosed donations to some political groups.
According to the IRS,groups organized under Section 501(c)(4) “must be operated exclusively to promote social welfare.”
They are allowed to lobby about issues and engage in limited political activity,but may not participate directly or indirectly in political campaigns “on behalf or or in opposition to any candidate for public office.”
McConnell replied that “the interpretation that the IRS has had,going back 40 or 50 years,I agree with,” before stopping to go off on an entirely different direction,without addressing the question specifically.
“Let me tell you what Norm is really for,” McConnell said. “What he’s really for is the government telling candidates for Congress how much they can spend – government-mandated spending limits – and using tax money to pay for it.
“If Norm had his way,” McConnell said,“he would push the private sector all the way of out the process of getting elected,” McConnell said. “You would file,the government would tell you how much you could speak,how much you could spend. The government would give you money to pay for your speech.
“And,of course,what kind of Congress is that likely to produce? The kind that wants to grow the government,because the government would be in charge of how you got there.”
McConnell ended the at-times terse exchange with another smile.
“I’ve been wanting to spar with you for years,” McConnell said.
Reach reporter Memet Walker at [email protected] or 202-326-9867. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.