let’s hear from the Tea Party 501(c)4s

Newt Gingrich tells NPR, “a [House] subcommittee … should invite every single tea party, conservative, patriot group that was messed over by the IRS — every single one of them — to come in and testify, so that they build this deadening record of how many different people were having their rights abused by this administration.”

That would be interesting, wouldn’t it? It would show that the IRS used partisan search terms to identify organizations for scrutiny, which is deeply problematic. It would also reveal what all these applicants for tax-exempt status were really up to. We know they sought 501(c)4 status, which, under the Internal Revenue Code, is reserved for “civic leagues or organizations not organized for profit but operated exclusively for the promotion of social welfare.” Under IRS regulations, “The promotion of social welfare does not include direct or indirect participation or intervention in political campaigns on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office.” So it would be very interesting to ask representatives of the Tea Party groups, under oath, whether they directly or indirectly participated in or intervened in any political campaigns. For example, it would be interesting to ask that question of former Senator Norm Coleman, head of American Action Network, a 501(c)4 that spent $30.6 million on elections, and of Karl Rove, head of American Crossroads GPS, also a 501(c)4, which spent $71 million. If they acknowledged that they were involved in elections (!), it would be interesting to follow up with a question about how they answered this question on their 501(c)4 application forms, which they signed “under the penalties of perjury”:

Has the organization spent or does it plan to spend any money attempting to influence the selection, nomination, election, or appointment of any person to any Federal, state, or local public office or to an office in a political organizations? If “Yes,” explain in detail and list the amounts spent or to be spent in each case.

I fully acknowledge that the IRS regulations governing tax-exempt status are a tattered cloth, and left-leaning groups also take full advantage of the many holes. If I chaired the House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform, I would call progressive groups as well as Tea Partiers to testify. But if the Republicans in charge of the Committee want to call only the ostensible victims of IRS political bias, let’s indeed hear from Mssrs. Rove, Coleman, et al. about their “social welfare” activities.

In all, tax-exempt 501(c)4s spent $254,279,733 to influence the 2012 election. Members of Congress who were actually interested in oversight and legislation would be eager to find out how and why they did this, where they got their money, and how they presented themselves to the IRS as organizations that did not participate in or influence elections.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.