Church Exemption: Good for the Goose is Good for the Gander

New Orleans   The membership of legacy religious institutions may be falling like a rock, but their privileges are increasing. President Trump last week signed an executive order that sought to do a couple of things for churches. On one hand he wanted to give them some more flexibility in opposing abortion for their workers and institutions, but most of that had already been done by the courts in the Hobby Lobby case. The other penance he offered was protection for political endorsements being made by pastors right from the pulpit, and that’s interesting.

The Internal Revenue Service provides a tax exemption under its 501c3 classification for religious institutions and other nonprofits providing charitable, educational, and other benefits. In exchange for such a tax exemption there are some restrictions including the level of profit-making enterprises escaping taxation, unless they are directly related to the mission and purpose of the exempt nonprofit. There is also a ban on political activity and endorsements.

Trump’s executive order was a promise to the evangelical and religious community that he would get them around the Johnson Amendment and its restriction on religious endorsements. In some ways this was a bit of a straw man. Priests and pastors have been making political endorsements from the pulpit for years without provoking any investigations from the IRS, so they have been able to do so with impunity. Evangelical preachers have hardly been quaking in their brogans as they have embraced and endorsed conservative politicians from right to far-righter for fear of losing their tax privileges. Archbishops and Cardinals in heavily Catholic cities and states have sometimes jumped into the middle of political campaigns, including threatening excommunication of parishioners for voting for governors, senators, and representatives bold enough to support abortions. Trump’s claim was that his order would now protect them and give them license to jump into politics at their will and whim.

Talking to the director and organizer of an environmental group the other day who was debating whether his tax exempt group needed to form an entity that could be more aggressively active in pushing climate change into the political agenda, I had jokingly suggested that since a lot of environmentalists already talked about nature as their church, a simple fix for this problem would be to just say his outfit was now religious, and say whatever they wanted to say. Now in truth Trump’s order doesn’t mean much. The IRS will likely just ignore it and given the way they’ve ignored such blatant politics in the pulpit in the past and their depleted ranks in the exemption debate, it doesn’t add up to much.

But, what’s good for the goose, should be good for the gander. If the IRS lightened up on one group of nonprofits, they would have to lighten up on the whole bunch, equal protection being what it is once the matter finds its way to the courts. Nonprofit staff and leadership wouldn’t have to dance around whether they were speaking and acting personally and not as representatives of their organizations as they jumped into politics any more than pastors and priests. The President may not care that if he opens the door for one, everybody can walk in, but if this order has any weight, that’s what it should end up meaning. What’s good for one is good for all.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

ACORN Makes the Federal Budget Extension Bill Yet Again

Little Rock   In a story headlined, “I Can’t Do This Anymore, Congress. I Can’t: Republicans are blocking funds for the long-shuttered ACORN again,” Zach Carter, the senior economy reporter for the Huffington Post tries to retire from the ACORN-Is-Dead piece after years on the beat. Since I’ve counted on Zach to scour the budget to find out if ACORN is still high on the hater list for the Republicans, I’ll miss him, but I do what to honor his toil by sharing his report from the HuffPost today, so here is what Zach Carter has to say:

WASHINGTON ― One morning in early March of 2013, I received a reporting tip for what I thought would be the single dumbest story I would ever write. When I answered the phone, the Capitol Hill staffer on the other end could barely contain his laughter. House Republicans had slipped detailed language into a must-pass government funding bill that would prevent federal cash from flowing to an anti-poverty group called ACORN.

My source wasn’t a cold-hearted bureaucrat.

The GOP had grown accustomed to demanding concessions from Democrats on critical legislation since winning control of the House in 2010. Some of these maneuvers ― including a failed attempt to repeal Obamacare ― carried serious policy implications. But this particular case of legislative hostage-taking came with a punchline: ACORN didn’t exist. The organization had disbanded nearly three years prior. Congress was about to do something thoroughly futile, for no reason.

There was a certain aesthetic harmony between the emptiness of this looming legislative assault and the attack that caused ACORN’s demise. In 2009, conservative provocateur James O’Keefe had stitched together undercover footage that appeared to show ACORN staffers offering financial advice to a pimp who declared he was prostituting underage girls. Multiple government investigations would eventually clear ACORN of legal wrongdoing, and O’Keefe’s career would descend into a series of bizarre self-owns. But the damage to ACORN was done. Congress voted to cut off federal funding and the group closed its doors, humiliated.

Years later, ACORN’s enemies were apparently still not satisfied. I called the GOP spokeswoman for the House Appropriations Committee, who told me the anti-ACORN language was “a typical provision that is included in most appropriations bills.” This explanation, of course, only made everything weirder. Why would Congress routinely bar federal funding for an organization that doesn’t exist?

The ultimate answer turned out to be that Congress was barely functional. And it remains all-but-broken today. Four years later, here I am, sitting at my desk, writing another story about a budget bill attacking funds for ACORN. It’s right there on page 1,060 of the latest government funding legislation:

None of the funds made available under this or any other Act, or any prior Appropriations Act, may be provided to the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), or any of its affiliates, subsidiaries, allied organizations, or successors.Since ACORN does not exist, it has no affiliates or subsidiaries. “Allied organizations” and “successors” are not legally defined terms. I know because I have written different versions of this story over and over and over again. Every time Congress unveils a new bill to fund the federal government, I do a quick search through the text for “ACORN,” and Congress rarely lets me down.

Sometimes liberal publications or nerdy blogs boost the stories, but they always click well, because this tale is always so breathtakingly stupid. In August 2014, in a fit of foolishness, I declared the crusade against ACORN over because the language attacking funds for the nonexistent organization had disappeared from the budget bill. It reappeared in December of that year, prompting HuffPost’s publication of what I still believe to be the masterwork of this mini-genre, which we headlined “Tears of Sisyphus: Republicans Resurrect ACORN, Only To Murder It. Again.”

Once upon a time, lawmakers determined the federal budget by debating policy priorities and holding hearings about what the appropriate funding levels for different programs ought to be. This would be a series of negotiations over final appropriations and, ultimately, a relatively reliable stream of funds would emerge for social services, scientific research and other federal programs.

Congressional leaders abandoned that process some years ago, after a calamitous effort to extract ideological concessions tied to a bill to raise the debt ceiling nearly resulted in the U.S. government defaulting on the federal debt. In place of the old system, party leaders now copy and paste language from prior bills, seeking to avoid controversy, and hash out any disputes in private meetings. That’s how the ACORN phrasing makes it into law again and again. Somebody just pulls up whatever the old language was on Department of Health and Human Services funding, correctly assessing that whatever passed last time around won’t cause too much trouble today.

I used to get a kick out of the ACORN story. Most of my writing for HuffPost involves financial regulation, international bribery or some other technical issue involving money and numbers with high stakes. ACORN was a nice break ― something fun, stupid and essentially harmless.

But I can’t do it anymore. I’ve been writing about this foolishness for more than four years, and I’m not getting the same sense of joy or relief I used to get from seeing those five magic letters. The truth is that I’m starting to resent this beat, and I don’t want to remember it as something frustrating or annoying. I want to remember ACORN the way it deserves to be remembered. It’s not you, ACORN. It’s me.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail