Counter-Attack on the Political Non-Profits

At Bloomberg Politics, Margaret Talev identifies five more things Obama can do by executive order to “mess with Republicans in 2015.” Four of them are pretty predictable: veto the Keystone XL pipeline; extend Clean Air regulations to cover other toxic emissions like those of methane; issue sentencing guidelines to reduce incarceration of people for minor drug offenses; and cut a nuclear deal with Iran.

But the fifth is not one you hear very often:

So-called dark-money nonprofits, such as those affiliated with the Koch brothers, could find it much harder to muck around in elections. Under current practices, up to half of these groups’ money can be spent on politics. Changes to the Internal Revenue Service regulations governing 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations could shrink the percentage they can devote to election activities such as advertising. Overall, the aim would be to make it more difficult for any nonprofit group to engage in campaign politics; in practice, it would likely be perceived as a disproportionate handicap of conservative donor-backed organizations. These are among the reforms that the administration, regulatory groups or Congress could take on if so inclined (which Congress probably is not).

Clarification of the rules governing political nonprofits is grossly, insanely overdue. Instead of ignoring or suffering from the dishonest conservative attacks on the IRS for “targeting” conservative applicants for non-profit status (you know, persecuting them by denying them the God-given right to hide donors paying for blatantly partisan political ads), Obama should counter-attack, perhaps lowering the percentage of (c)(4) operations that can be devoted to electioneering to zero. Then let conservatives explain why running attack ads should be considered a tax-preferred “social welfare” activity.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.