The mainstream press has justified its lack of coverage over the Internal Revenue Service targeting of conservative groups because there’s been no “smoking gun” tying President Obama to the scandal. This betrays a remarkable, if not willful, failure to understand abuse of power. The political pressure on the IRS to delay or deny tax-exempt status for conservative groups has been obvious to anyone who cares to open his eyes. It did not come from a direct order from the White House, but it didn’t have to.
First, some background: On Jan. 21, 2010, the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Citizens United v. FEC upholding the right of corporations and unions to make independent expenditures in political races. Then, on March 26, relying on Citizens United, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the rights of persons (including corporations) to pool resources for political purposes. This allowed the creation of “super PACs” as well as corporate contributions to groups organized under Section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code that spend in political races.
The reaction to Citizens United was no secret. Various news outlets such as CNN noted that “Democrats fear the decision has given the traditionally pro-business GOP a powerful new advantage.”
The 501(c)(4) groups in question are officially known as “social-welfare organizations.” They have for decades been permitted to engage in political activity under IRS rules, so long as their primary purpose (generally understood to be more than 50% of their activity) wasn’t political. They are permitted to lobby without limitation and are not required to disclose their donors. The groups span the political spectrum, from the National Rifle Association to Common Cause to the Planned Parenthood Action Fund. If forced out of 501(c)(4) status, these nonprofit advocacy groups would have to reorganize as for-profit corporations and pay taxes on donations received, or reorganize as “political committees” under Section 527 of the IRS Code and be forced to disclose their donors. (more…)