Nonprofits are at a crossroads, and the IRS should pay attention.
Commentators from across the political spectrum are increasingly interested in the IRS's treatment of nonprofit political activity, either because of the ongoing investigation of former IRS official Lois Lerner's emails, or because of the increased visibility of 501(c)(4) and (c)(6) political spending before the November elections. Conversations on this topic are starting to take place across ideological lines, and in this hyper-partisan environment, those conversations are more important (and unexpected) than ever.
But so far a vital voice has been missing from these conversations — that of the voters impacted by the potentially political activities of (c)(4) nonprofits. That will change Sept. 30, as the Hudson Institute and Public Citizen present the results of a recent bipartisan poll asking voters across the country what their opinions are on clearer rules for political activity. Pollsters Celinda Lake, of Lake Research Partners, a Democratic polling firm, and Robert Carpenter, of Chesapeake Beach Consulting, a Republican polling firm, will present the poll results to gathered nonprofit leaders and the public.
What makes an event like this so unusual is that nowadays it seems like everything we hear about nonprofit political activity is divided along party lines. For example, earlier this month, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI) issued their report on the IRS's management failures in handling applications for 501(c)(4) status which led to the loud accusations of targeting throughout the past year. The committee found itself divided on the results of that investigation, and so the minority staff ended up releasing a separate report with its own findings.
Given this type of story, it may seem like there is no communication between two sides dedicated to their own agendas on the IRS and political activity. But interestingly, that's just not true. Important agreement (soon to be highlighted in this bipartisan poll release) is happening across ideological lines. Organizations that are interested in ensuring protections for free speech and democratic participation while bringing clarity to the definition of political activity for nonprofits commented in vast numbers to a proposed rule on the subject earlier this year. In fact, 67 percent of those organizations called for the rule-making to continue.
The fact that a rule-making on this subject is ongoing makes this polling data especially timely.
The IRS has said that it will issue the new draft rule in early 2015, and that the rule will address the definition of political activity.
Conversations that acknowledge differences and still seek solutions are increasingly rare in our divided political climate, particularly when the IRS is mentioned. But they are taking place, and when they do, the IRS should take note.
Gilbert is the director of Public Citizen's Congress Watch division.