March 14, 2012
Democratic Senators Urge IRS to Change 501(c)(4) Rules
In a letter and related press release issued earlier this week, Senator Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) and six Democratic colleagues in the Senate urged the IRS to revise its rules and practices relating to section 501(c)(4) organizations. More specifically, they proposed the following:
First, we urge the IRS to adopt a bright line test in applying its “primary purpose” regulation that is consistent with the Code’s 501(c)(4) exclusivity language. The IRS currently only requires that the purpose of these non-profits be “primarily” related to social welfare activities, without defining what “primarily” means. This standard should be spelled out more fully by the IRS. Some have suggested 51 percent as an appropriate threshold for establishing that a nonprofit is adhering to its mission, but even this number would seem to allow for more political election activity than should be permitted under the law. In the absence of clarity in the administration of section 501(c)(4), organizations are tempted to abuse its vagueness, or worse, to organize under section 501(c)(4) so that they may avail themselves of its advantages even though they are not legitimate social welfare organizations. If the IRS does not adopt a bright line test, or if it adopts one that is inconsistent with the Code’s exclusivity language, then we plan to pursue legislation codifying such a test.
Second, such organizations should be further obligated to document in their 990 IRS form the exact percentage of their undertakings dedicated to “social welfare.” Organizations should be required to “show their math” to demonstrate that political election activities and other statutorily limited or prohibited activities do not violate the “primary purpose” regulation.
Third, 501(c)(4) organizations should be required to state forthrightly to potential donors what percentage of a donation, if any, may be taken as a business expense deduction. As the New York Times reported in its March 7tharticle, some of these organizations do not currently inform donors whether a contribution is tax deductible as a business expense at all.
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