Political activity does benefit the social welfare

Political activity does benefit the social welfare

FormsThe latest excuses in the IRS scandal of improperly targeting conservative groups for additional, inappropriate questioning before granting tax-exempt status are these: These conservative groups weren’t really “social welfare” organizations but cloaked political organizations out to elect partisans, and maybe the IRS was right to target them to make sure none of that nefarious political crap stuff was going on.

I heard this argument during an MSNBC discussion recently, and it popped up in this New York Times article about how these conservative groups might have needed some extra scrutiny:

…a close examination of these groups and others reveals an array of election activities that tax experts and former I.R.S. officials said would provide a legitimate basis for flagging them for closer review.

“Money is not the only thing that matters,” said Donald B. Tobin, a former lawyer with the Justice Department’s tax division who is a law professor at Ohio State University. “While some of the I.R.S. questions may have been overbroad, you can look at some of these groups and understand why these questions were being asked.”

To Mr. Tobin, I say: Uh, not really. His theory would only work if similar liberal groups received the same “overbroad” questioning. To date, there’s scant if any evidence of that. And, in fact, some highly politicized liberal groups have maintained 501c3 and/or 501c4 tax exempt status for years now, boldly championing political causes and ideas.

So, let’s address first the nonsense about “political” groups not benefiting the “social welfare.” “Political” isn’t a dirty word. Political groups try to educate the public about specific policies and the politicians and officials who support them. Most, if not all, these groups support specific policies because they believe such polices benefit the “social welfare.”

Conservatives, for example, believe that small government and lower taxes benefit the economy, unleashing entrepreneurs and creating jobs—a benefit to the social welfare. They also believe that voter ID laws help clean up voter rosters, ensuring votes aren’t stolen by fakers—again, policy that benefits the social welfare.

Since when did we decide that “social welfare” and “political activities” are polar opposites?

This kind of thinking reminds me of when I served on a library board in a small town. The library, situated in a beautiful old building, was viewed by some as a community center. And it certainly served as one when, say, an elected official might hold a q and a session in its large meeting room. But the library had a policy that kept other political groups out of the meeting room. So, while a liberal congressman could use the room to rail against Republicans, the local Republican city committee couldn’t use the room to hold meetings.

The board changed that policy, opening the meeting room to political groups in general, after it was pointed out that maybe, as a community center of sorts, it wasn’t a bad idea to let groups in who might want to talk about policies that would affect the….social welfare…of that community. Political groups, in particular.

The whole argument that we shouldn’t be granting tax exempt status to politically minded groups is bogus. These groups do benefit the social welfare. In fact, I strongly suspect that liberal groups such as People for the American Way and Moveon.org might agree. You see, these are just two of many examples of liberal tax exempt organizations.

You can find the People for the American Way IRS tax exempt form on their website, in fact. In it, you’ll see how they describe their program’s mission, services and accomplishments. A few of their points:

Conducts research, legal and education work on behalf of first amendment freedoms and democratic values.

…Develop and provide strategic long-term leadership development training that engages youth and target constituencies to develop and support the next generation of Progressive leaders on progressive policy issues.

Public information and member/civic engagement – provides information to media, activists and general public educating them about organizational issues, positions, activities and publications through events, multimedia outreach strategies, press releases, distribution of op-eds and editorial memoranda….

As to Moveon.org, they display their mission and tax exempt status at the bottom of their home page:

MoveOn.org Civic Action is a 501(c)(4) organization which primarily focuses on nonpartisan education and advocacy on important national issues. (My note: Moveon.org also has a PAC that is more directly involved in campaigns and candidates.)

It’s worth noting at this point what “nonpartisan” means. It means they don’t root for a particular “team” or party just to gain power. They root for specific ideas. Most of those ideas happen to be in sync with Democrats and Progressives. Just as most conservative ideas mesh with the Republican party and its candidates.

Maybe one of the reasons folks recoil from the notion that political activity can benefit the social welfare is because it can get, well, acrimonious. When you are trying passionately to persuade people to a policy point of view, rhetoric can become super-charged, strategies acerbic.

People for the American Way, for example, has a “right wing watch” on their website, along with a place to sign a petition to get Michele Bachmann off the House Intelligence Committee and lots of other anti-conservative messages. There’s a lot of negativity bombarding you as soon as you look at their home page.

Moveon’s website, by contrast, leaned in a more positive direction, pointing readers to different pages where policies they support are discussed.

So, people might recoil from the notion that political activity can benefit the social welfare because they recoil from politics in general. That’s not good…policy …at all. And it doesn’t for one nanosecond get to the heart of the IRS scandal.

The IRS decided one kind of political activity was okay and another wasn’t. That’s bad policy, any way you want to look at it.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist. Her latest book, After the War, is available in print and digitally.

Libby Sternberg

Libby Sternberg

Libby Sternberg is an Edgar-nominated novelist whose works include humorous women’s fiction, young adult fiction, and historical fiction. Her political writings have appeared at Hot Air, the Weekly Standard, Insight, the Wall Street Journal, and Christian Science Monitor.


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