Political Activity Limits and Tax Exemption: A Gordian's Knot
61 Pages Posted: 5 Aug 2014 Last revised: 17 Aug 2017
Date Written: September 12, 2014
The article considers the correct tax treatment of organized political activity by the tax system and discusses the problems that have arisen from political activity depending on whether the organization is a charity, a noncharitable exempt, or a political organization. The article then examines administrative and legislative options to the problems raised by political activity. Quantum-based solutions to the problem of political activity by noncharitable exempts do not provide a clear advantage over present law. Formally quantifying the “primarily” test would result in more certainty, but would also require that the Service be more, not less, involved in the regulation of political activity. If the policy goal is to curb political activity by noncharitable exempts, changing the test from “primarily” to something more restrictive like “substantially” or “exclusively” would be effective, but would create new categories of taxable nonprofits that are treated worse than political organizations for engaging in less political activity, which is irrational. Further, it is not clear, especially after the Citizens United decision, why as a matter of tax exemption the regulations decree that political activity may not further noncharitable exempt purposes. Before Citizens United, the political activity limits were not especially relevant, but at least helped to differentiate organization types. However, Citizens United largely rendered existing tax law limitations obsolete by making a new kind of multi-purpose organization possible. As a result, definitional political activity limits are no longer justified and should be eliminated, but only if the 527(f) tax on investment income remains vital and the differences in the disclosure regimes between political organizations and noncharitable exempts are erased. In addition, Congress should affirm that the gift tax does not apply with respect to political contributions, but also extend the income tax to transfers of appreciated property to noncharitable exempts. Further, Congress should acknowledge that the increase in political speech by noncharitable exempts will lead to abuse of charitable organizations, and take steps to prevent the laundering of independent expenditures through the charitable form. Congress also should recognize that Citizens United has led to a need to develop a new tax baseline for political activity conducted “for profit” or outside of section 527.
Keywords: political activity, tax-exemption, IRS targeting, citizens united, 501(c)(4), 501(c)(5), 501(c)(6), 527s, social welfare organizations, dark money, non charitable exempt, tea-party scandal, donor disclosure
JEL Classification: H2, H20, H29, K34, L3, L30
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation