Regulating the Political Speech of Noncharitable Exempt Organizations after Citizens United
99 Pages Posted: 19 Dec 2010 Last revised: 11 Jan 2011
Date Written: December 17, 2010
The role of noncharitable exempt organizations was perhaps the key feature of this year’s election. Senator Baucus as Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, for example, sent a letter calling upon the IRS to survey major noncharitable 501(c) organizations to ensure that they are obeying the rules regarding political activity, including limits on politicking. In Citizens United, however, the Supreme Court decreed that “[ o sufficient governmental interest justifies limits on the political speech of nonprofit or for-profit corporations.” Nowhere does Citizens United acknowledge the tax limits on political speech or address their constitutionality. Supreme Court cases predating Citizens United have justified these tax limits on the grounds that government has no duty to subsidize political speech. To the extent that “no duty to subsidize” is and remains the justification, nothing in Citizens United explicitly threatens the current tax regime. Nonetheless, we must ask whether the reasoning of Citizens United has undermined Regan v. Taxation with Representation of Washington (“TWR”), the key ”no duty to subsidize” case. In addition, the rules regarding politicking by tax exempt entities have changed significantly since TWR. As a result, the standards as announced in the case and interpreted by its progeny may call for a different conclusion today. Furthermore, this piece will explore both the tax rules that are, and some that might be, applicable to the political speech of noncharitable tax exempt organizations. Part I will review TWR, its ancestors and its progeny as well as Citizens United. Part II will describe the current tax rules regarding lobbying and politicking applicable to exempt organizations that can engage in unlimited lobbying and politicking as part, but not the primary purpose, of their activities: section 501(c)(4) social welfare organization, section 501(c)(5) labor organizations, and section 501(c)(6) trade associations. The discussion will include consideration of treatment of contributions to such organizations for gift tax purposes and the special tax that may be applicable to membership dues because of lobbying and politicking by such organizations. Part II will also review the history of section 527, the section governing political organizations, with particular attention to the 2000 amendments that added registration and disclosure requirements. Part III examines the possible impact of Citizens United on the tax law’s current approach to political speech. It highlights the difference between the definitions of lobbying provided in the Internal Revenue Code and Treasury regulations and the uncertain “facts and circumstances” approach employed by the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS” or “Service”) in identifying politicking. It offers a reconciliation of seemingly contradictory language in Taxpayers With Representation and Citizens United regarding use of affiliates to conclude that Citizens United has not sub silentio overturned TWR’s “no duty to subsidize” holding. It defends, albeit unenthusiastically, the 2000 amendments to section 527. Part IV proposes a number of possible additional disclosure requirements for noncharitable exempt organizations engaged in lobbying and politicking. They include requiring applications for exemption, establishing a new category of exempt organizations for organizations primarily engaged in lobbying and expanding disclosure of contributors for all or for some noncharitable exempt organizations. It also explores the possibility of taxing the politicking expenditures of noncharitable tax exempt organizations not conducted through a separate segregated fund, whether or not the organization has investment income. The piece concludes by reminding us that the tax law regulation cannot substitute for campaign finance regulation.
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