The IRS recently proposed major changes to the way not-for-profit 501c4 organizations operate, which would effectively and severely limit their ability to engage in advocacy. These are your social welfare organizations, for which advocacy for “the common good and general welfare” is their primary purpose. They differ from 501c3, which are your charitable organizations; 501c5s, your labor unions; and 501c6s, your trade organizations. The one thing all of these organizations do have in common is that they are all tax-exempt organizations.
501c4s are not tax-deductible precisely because they are not political organizations. They serve to educate by being issue-based. This is protected under free speech; so long as the 501c4 sticks to an issue and not advocate for a particular candidate, it is not considered political speech and therefore it cannot be curbed. They can talk about policies and positions, not people.
These social welfare groups can therefore participate in the political arena as long as they maintain education as their primary purpose. Some examples of 501c4s would be the National Rifle Association (NRA), American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), and the Sierra Club. 501(c)4s have been around for nearly 100 years, and the regulations that currently govern them have been in place since 1959.
So why has the Obama administration and the IRS taken a sudden interest in clarifying the rules for social welfare organizations that have been in place for more than 50 years? And why only the social welfare organizations, not the unions or trade organizations?
It is well known that on issue-based advocacy, the Republicans have made much better use of 501c4s than the Democrats. So of course, the Democrats want to find a way to disrupt this. You can find a flood of recent articles documenting how this conservative group and that conservative group spent money on political ads, more than the liberal groups–as if that is somehow unfair. It’s perfectly fair and perfectly legal — except when the Democrats are on the losing/receiving end.
This situation is reminiscent of the attempt to implement the “Fairness Doctrine” for talk radio, pushing to give conservative and liberal talk radio shows “equal air time” — because the conservatives dominate that market as well.
The 2014 Democrats are vulnerable, and they know it. What better way to stifle the ability for conservatives to message (foremost on the fledgling Obamacare law) than by attacking the methodology? The Obama Administration is retaliating by using the IRS to propose changes to the way social welfare organizations function and introducing very specific and onerous rules. These rules that have not been necessary at all for the entirety of the time (nearly a century) 501c4s have been in existence — until suddenly now.
What the new policy does is make definitions of political activity, specifically creating a huge number of things to now be considered “political”. The regs “would explicitly define which kind of activities are political and fall outside of the social welfare category, forcing such groups to be more careful about how they spend their funds. Under the proposed regulation, “candidate-related political activities” would include running ads that mention candidates close to Election Day, preparing voter guides or holding voter registration drives”.
By defining such activities as “political” instead of advocacy, they would be opened to being limited or even banned — activities which serve to provide education for the common good, as they always have.
Critics of the way 501c4s operate, which allow their donors to remain protected, suggest that the 501c4s are somehow gaming the system — using phrases like “secret donors” and “secret activity” to inflame the public against 501c4s. But this is patently untrue.
Political donors are required to be disclosed under campaign finance, but since 501c4s are specifically not political organizations, the donor names do not need to be made public. Their anonymity is protected under the Right of Free Association. Those who are on the receiving end of 501c4 activities to educate the populace during the election cycle, however, are now pushing for this to change in order to reveal citizens identities.
Therefore turning a simple and known definition of a 501c4 into a new and incomprehensible one, has the effect of stifling speech. Even the mere presence of such a proposal has had detrimental repercussions.
The regulation triggered more public commentary– tens of thousands of responses — during the open comment timeframe that recently ended, than any other regulation in history. Because of the outcry, there is a strong likelihood that it the proposed changes will be rescinded. How it even was allowed to come to fruition is mind-boggling.
It is possible that the persons who drafted the legislation didn’t even care about its clarity or effects. Every day that the proposal is even out there is another day that these 501c4s either a) can’t get started or b) can’t engage in advocacy. Why? The possibility of these regulations becoming permanent rules has 501c4s worried about potential infractions. After the recent revelations about the IRS targeting last year, it is not unlikely to think that the IRS purposely crafted muddled regulations.
From the vantage point of the 2014 midterm elections, the effect of curbing or scaring the activity of 501c4s during this election cycle undoubtedly benefits the Democrats.
What organization would risk the potential for increased scrutiny and possible violation from the IRS, knowing that the IRS has been operating in an unjust and partisan matter? They wouldn’t of course. So the 501c4s are currently holding back.
The IRS continues to act in an incompetent manner. That they are targeting 501c4s, and not c5s and c6s, show that there is an inherent bias internally within the IRS. No one can look at the situation and not think that this wasn’t done to have an affect on the current political cycle. This is not how the IRS is supposed to function in our country.