IRS Proposes to Level the Playing Field for Political Groups

In a very welcome move which, unfortunately, won’t do a thing to quell conservative shrieking about the “IRS scandal,” the Tax Man is suggesting (per a report from Politico‘s Hillary Flynn and Rachel Bade) that the rules governing political activity by nonprofit groups be made uniform for all of them regardless of which subsection of the Internal Revenue Code they happen to fall under.

IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said the agency may expand a yet-to-be-released rule governing 501(c)(4), “social welfare” groups, to include political groups known as 527s, which focus on elections. It could require them both — as well as other types of tax-exempt groups — to operate under the same definition of “political activity.”

“If it’s going to be a fair system, it needs to apply across the board,” Koskinen said when asked by POLITICO if such groups would be included in the new rule. “[I]f we have a set of definitions for 501(c)(4)s, what about everybody else? Can they do more or less [political activity]? And for us as [an] administration, for ease of administration, it makes sense to have this common definition.”

This would place the notorious “527 organizations” under another set of eyes beyond the Federal Election Commission. But it would also apply to other nonprofits we haven’t been talking about under current rules:

“We’re looking at, to be fair, applications across the entire spectrum,” [IRS Commissioner John Koskinen] told [a House Appropriations Committee hearing]. “So it shouldn’t just be [501]c4s. We need to make sure that as Congress has legislated in all of these areas, there’s a consistent and appropriate framework for [501]c3, [501]c4, [501]c5, [501]c6, 527s.”

That would shut down one major so’s-your-old-man argument from Republicans against scrutiny of 501(c)(4)s: the whine that 501(c)(5)s–union based organizations–would be exempt. But what Republicans want is less scrutiny for themselves, not more scrutiny for others. And they will scream bloody murder if and when the proposed rule finally comes out that quantifies the political activity allowable to supposed “social welfare organizations.” Anything other than 100% will be too much for them. They will not, however, be able to claim discrimination.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.