Wednesday, July 16, 2014
The Center for Public Integrity has released an investigative report about the IRS Tea Party targeting scandal, in which the CPI reviewed thousands of pages of documents and interviewed dozens of insiders. The report provides a good high-level overview of the scandal, and makes a few useful findings about the Exempt Organization function within the IRS. To many, the findings may come as no surprise, but bear repeating: over time the IRS has fewer employees to regulate a rapidly growing sector, the already low rate at which the IRS investigates exempt organizations is shrinking, the social welfare category (i.e., the one at the heart of the targeting scandal) is growing, and the IRS is increasingly timid – backing down to political pressure. Unfortunately, none of this makes for an effective overseer of a vital part of civil society.
Although the report is useful, some peripheral statements should be more closely considered if only because a number of misconceptions about the IRS targeting scandal continue inadvertently to be spread. One statement in the report is that “It wasnʼt until the Supreme Courtʼs Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision in 2010, however, that politically active nonprofits — social welfare groups as well as 501(c)(5) labor unions and 501(c)(6) trade groups — became a major force in political elections, all while receiving a de facto tax subsidy.” The implication from the “de facto tax subsidy” language is that political activity, when conducted after Citizens United by a noncharitable tax-exempt like a 501(c)(4), (5), or (6), gets an unwarranted subsidy and is abusive. But this is not really right. Political activity by a noncharitable exempt generally is not tax-advantaged relative to the same activity by a political organization (aka a “527”). Rather, political activity by a noncharitable exempt actually triggers a tax that is intended to make the tax treatment of political activity consistent across sections of the tax code. There is no abusive subsidy for political activity here.
Later, the report notes that “Social welfare and other nonprofit groups galloped into the post-Citizens United era with an inherent advantage over overtly political groups: They could hide the source of their funding, regardless of whether those sources were corporations, individuals or other special interests. And they're only required tell the FEC the names of donors who give money to help produce specific ads — something that rarely happens.” This point bears more than passing emphasis. The anonymity offered to donors by noncharitable exempt status, and not a tax subsidy, is the underlying legal issue at the heart of the targeting scandal post-Citizens United. In other words, the targeting scandal is not really about taxes at all, it is about donor disclosure or the lack thereof.
The report says that: “The tea party affair has directed attention away from what many IRS workers say is the much larger problem — regulating the activities of politically charged nonprofits.” and also that the IRS is “supposed to ensure 501(c) nonprofit organizations don't become more political than the law allows.” The broad meaning here is right: the targeting scandal has diverted attention from some real problems with the legal architecture. Also, the IRS does have a legitimate role to play when it comes to political activity and tax exemption. But these statements unintentionally play into another misconception about the IRS’s role when it comes to the political activity of noncharitable exempts and political organizations. In this context, the IRS does not really “regulate” political activity in the sense of deciding whether or not the activity is permitted. Rather, the IRS’s function is to classify organizations based on their purpose as measured by the quantum of their activities. This is an important distinction. The IRS does not regulate speech or activity as such; rather, the IRS, as charged by Congress, assesses organization purposes and activities and applies a tax label ((c)(4), 527, etc.). So political activity is relevant to tax classification, but it is not a question of permitting or prohibiting political activity.
The report also states that “Political ‘527 groups’ are tax exempt like 501(c)(4) groups, but unlike them, they must disclose their donors.” It should be noted that the point about disclosure is correct, but not the point about tax-exemption. Broadly, 527 groups are taxed on their investment income whereas 501(c)(4)s and other noncharitable exempts are not. So the tax treatment is not equivalent. But as noted earlier, if a noncharitable exempt engages in political activity, then a tax is triggered, which is intended to make the organizational tax treatment of political activity broadly uniform across exemption categories.
But none of this undermines the key thrust of the report's message -- that the regulatory environment of the IRS exempt organization function is in crisis and in need of constructive solutions.