The Internal Revenue Service is under fire from both parties for improperly targeting certain groups for additional scrutiny because their names included keywords such as “Tea Party” and “patriot.” But the challenge of addressing the skyrocketing numbers of “social welfare” groups registering for tax exempt status could be lessened by fixing the broken disclosure laws for political advertisers.
Since the Supreme Court’s controversial 5 to 4 ruling in the Citizens United v. FEC case in 2010, the IRS has seen a more than 100 percent increase in the number of groups applying for 501(c)(4) status — the section of the federal tax code that governs non-profit groups dedicated to social welfare — from 1,500 in 2010 to 3,400 in 2012.
Not all 501(c)(4) engage in political activity of any kind — the United States Chess Federation, for example, is a fairly apolitical group. Political 501(c)(4) groups are required to adhere to certain rules, including that they not be “primarily engaged” in electioneering activity. In a failed attempt to sort out which groups were apolitical and which needed additional scrutiny, the IRS reportedly tried a variety of ineffective screening methods, including flagging “patriot” groups as well as groups that focused on making “America a better place to live.”
As long as it is not their primary purpose, Citizens United allows (c)(4) groups to spend unlimited funds on “independent expenditure” ads aimed at swaying voters and the deadlocked Federal Election Commission allows these groups to avoid any disclosure of who bankrolls these advertisements. And since the 2002 law governing political advertisements came before the ruling, it does not adequately address the specific issue of disclosure for independent expenditure ads.
Because of this loophole, groups seeking to influence elections through campaign ads groups and to avoid having to make their donors public have often registered as (c)(4)s, rather than as super PACs (tax-exempt groups which can also raise and spend unlimited amounts on “independent expenditures,” but must make public all large donors). After bankrolling super PACs in the 2012 elections, mega-donors including millionaire investor Foster Friess and billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson have vowed to keep future political spending secret, by giving to opaque 501(c)(4) committees instead. And good government groups have demanded the IRS investigate whether (c)(4)s like Crossroads GPS, the Commission on Growth, Hope and Opportunity, and the American Future Fund are really just super PACs in disguise.
The guidelines for what is and is not an acceptable level of political activity for a (c)(4) has never been clear — a vague “primary purpose” test — and has been little enforced. With limited staff and resources, even before massive furloughs forced by the sequester, the IRS has proved ill-equipped to monitor which (c)(4)s are really (c)(4)s and which ones are pretenders.
Congressional Republicans have thus far blocked efforts to require disclosure of political ad spending by (c)(4) groups. The proposed DISCLOSE Act and the Follow the Money Act would help bring parity to the disclosure rules goverrning independent campaign ads, without impeding on the legitimate activity of (c)(4)s. But if groups like Crossroads GPS were required to disclose the major donors behind their $70 million-plus campaign ad spending, there would be little incentive for them to masquerade as social welfare groups.
If Congress simply treated all spending on independent campaign advertisements uniformly — allowing voters to know who was really speaking and to evaluate the speech accordingly — the IRS would not have to use these clearly imperfect tests to decide what is and isn’t a legitimate 501(c)(4).
Note: ThinkProgress is a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund (CAPAF), which has been recognized by the IRS as a 501(c)(4) organization. CAPAF does not endorse candidates, nor does it fund “independent expenditures” or any other kind of candidate-related advertising.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) told reporters Tuesday that the IRS is not the agency best equipped to oversee political groups. “DISCLOSE would have taken the IRS out of the business of investigating these groups.” He noted that “not a single Republican voted for” the measure in the Senate, asking “where was the outrage from the Republicans then?” House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi made similar arguments Monday. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) told reporters Tuesday that he continues to oppose the DISCLOSE Act, inaccurately claiming it was “designed to give the IRS even more power, directly, to silence the critics of this administration.”