Adam Meyerson, president of The Philanthropy Roundtable, sent a letter on February 25 to John Koskinen, commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service, offering comments on the proposed rules for tax-exempt organizations on candidate-related political activity.
Dear Commissioner Koskinen:
The Philanthropy Roundtable respectfully submits these comments in response to the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking issued by the Internal Revenue Service and the Treasury Department on November 29, 2013.
The Philanthropy Roundtable is a national nonprofit organization of over 600 foundations and individual donors whose grants and charitable gifts support thousands of § 501 (c) (3) charitable organizations across the United States. We anticipate that although these new rules have been proposed for § 501 (c) (4) social welfare organizations, the Internal Revenue Service will look to the final rules for § 501 (c) (4) groups as guidance for other tax-exempt groups, including those § 501 (c) (3) foundations and charitable organizations of primary concern to The Philanthropy Roundtable and its members.
We are particularly concerned that the proposed rules proceed from a dangerously expanded definition of “candidate-related political activity.” The Internal Revenue Code already prohibits organizations exempt from taxation under § 501 (c) (3) from participation or intervention in political campaigns on behalf of, or in opposition to, candidates for political office. The proposed rules will stretch that prohibition unreasonably. As other comments note, the proposed 30/60-day blackout period creates logistical challenges in any year, but particularly in presidential election years when the blackout period might extend to nearly 300 days.
Examples of now-permissible § 501 (c) (3) activities that will be deemed “candidate-related political activity” under the proposed rules include:
• A candidate forum which is free and open to the public, and to which all candidates for a school board election have been invited by a local family foundation whose mission is the improvement of K-12 education.
• A non-partisan voter guide compiled by a national organization working to end human trafficking, which details the voting records of all members of the Senate and House of Representatives on that issue.
• A press release issued following a meeting at which a community foundation and several of its grantees discuss with their state senator possible opportunities for public/private sector cooperation in addressing the problem of gang violence (and the meeting itself if held within 30/60 days of the state senator’s election).
• The remarks of a local soup kitchen volunteer at an incumbent Congresswoman’s town hall meeting which are critical of that member’s vote on the Farm Bill.
• The national dissemination by a large private foundation of research findings and recommendations regarding public funding of early childhood education, and follow-up meetings with state and federal policymakers on that topic.
• All website postings and website links to press releases, public statements, voter records, podcasts, videos, etc. which may mention the name of a current candidate for office, including communications and links produced and posted long before the 30/60 blackout period.
The proposed rules will – without question - threaten the essential and permissible work of donors, foundations, and charitable organizations to: 1) educate the general public and our policymakers about a broad range of social issues of critical importance to our nation and its communities; and 2) encourage the civil discourse about those issues that is central to democratic government. Because of the threat which these proposed rules present to philanthropic freedom and effectiveness, we respectfully urge the Internal Revenue Service to reconsider its significantly expanded definition of “candidate-related political activity.”