Nonprofits May Be Able to Go Politically Wild Thanks to House Republicans

New Orleans   The “law of unintended consequences” is not one that was passed by the US House of Representatives and its far right, ideological Republican majority, but it is certainly one that they might soon learn at their peril.

One of the many hidden time bombs in their recent tax bill, now heading towards conference with the Senate, was originally a repeal of the Johnson Amendment that prohibits tax-exempt charities from political activity. Initially, their amendment was only a wet kiss to the heavy breathers in their religious base who wanted a special exemption to practice politics from the pulpit. Not to be outdone – the final version of the House bill instead opens a political floodgate for charities to go wild. Their bill says that any tax-exempt charity can boost or bust political candidates if “the preparation and presentation of such content” is “in the ordinary course of the organization’s regular and customary activities” and does not result in more than de minimis incremental expenses.” (thanks to Ellen P. Aprill a tax law professor at Loyola Law School who read and reported the language!)

So, sure, that would cover preaching, because there’s no cost in adding an endorsement into a sermon, but it would also cover a world of other things that fit fully into a nebulous “de minimis” standard like a banner across a website’s home page, constant Twitter and Facebook posts, and endless email blasts all of which have virtually no cost. Remember as well that these standards are all set and monitored by the Internal Revenue Service, which to date, since the passage of the Johnson Amendment, has never clarified the existing standard of what might be permissible political activity, leaving the matter to institutional restraint and lawyer empowering, as one outfit after another takes a stab at a number, whether less than 5% or 8% or zero. Remember also that because of that the penalties are also somewhere between nil and a hand slap. President Trump’s own foundation was caught in this mess, as you may also remember, when he used the foundation’s funds to make several political contributions at the 5-figure levels, all of which he remedied by repaying the foundation. There was never a question about whether he was going to surrender the tax exemption of his foundation and certainly no evidence that the IRS was threatening to take it away. Without the thin shield of the Johnson Amendment, there will be no practical limits to what nonprofits might be able to do.

The Republican House may think more activism from the pulpit makes it all worthwhile, but they aren’t the only nonprofits who can jump into the partisan playgrounds. Take nonprofit hospitals for example, which still make up almost 60% of hospitals. A list of the top six systems from Ascension to Kaiser in the Wall Street Journal indicated they were turning over $158.5 billion dollars annually. Hospitals were pretty united in their opposition to the Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and will be even more committed to any cutbacks in Medicaid or Medicare. If “de minimis” was 5%, they could spent almost $8 billion, but even dropping notices in every bill or banners on every sign-up for your medical records online now would certainly get the message out. It would also cost just the same for doctors and nurses to whisper in patients’ ears as it cost for the pastor to slip an endorsement in a prayer.

Churches are shrinking while many other parts of the nonprofit sector, like healthcare, are soaring. The Republican House might should get on their knees and offer something up to the Republican Senate to save them from this repeal before the law of unintended consequences makes them give more than they hope to receive.

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To Host a Bigger Crowd of Our People, We May Need a Better Party

third_partiesNew Orleans   There were moments in the 2016 presidential race when observers thought that the candidates for President from the Libertarian and Green Parties could experience significant gains, perhaps even be spoilers. As both major parties presented candidates disappointing to many voters and when Bernie Sanders, a Democrat-Socialist, had inspired such fervor, many felt, there was a larger opening for alternative parties than we had seen in recent cycles. The results at the top of the ticket for the Libertarians and Greens did not prove that, though nationally they did garner a fair swatch of votes, and a favorite son candidate in Utah polled double-digits, almost throwing that state in a new and different direction.

But, wait a minute. David Brooks, conservative Republican die-hard op-ed columnist and part of the Never-Trump caucus, has now argued twice in the matter of days that he and his ilk need to organize a third party where establishment, traditional Republicans can land and feel comfortable since the Democrats are center-left, and the Republicans are now white working class and middle class.

Furthermore, even in a ruby-red state like Louisiana, it never ceases to amaze, given the barriers to success for alternative parties, the surprisingly lengthy list we are offered when we close the curtains on the voting booth on Election Day. Not just Green and Libertarian, but also the Constitution Party, Courage Character Service Party, It’s Our Children, Life Family Constitution, Socialism and Liberation, Socialism Equality Anti-War, Socialist Workers, and Veterans Party. The Greens and Libertarians accumulated 50,000 votes in Louisiana. Of course Trump-Clinton did 1.9 million, but still, 50,000 is 50,000. The other small also-rans added another 20,000. Hey, David Duke, running as a Republican got 58,000 and came in 7th of more than 20 candidates for the US Senate from Louisiana. There are a lot of divergent views in a big, wild ungainly electoral rodeo like we run in the United States.

My bi-coastal colleague, Steve Early, with a home and heart in California and his mind often still in New England, noted that alternative parties going local, rather than national, works if you look at the success they have had in a Green-Workers-Community alliance in Richmond, California and the continued success of eclectic green and worker friendly operations like the Vermont Progressive Party, both of which we have covered extensively in Social Policy. Concentrating on the top of the ticket may not be a winner. The Green Party reported only 20 to 21 local winners on Tuesday out of 279 state and local races, he noted.

The “nothing out there for me, it doesn’t really matter” nonvoter population is growing though, as turnout goes down and population goes up, and its huge. Yet, Trump, Sanders, and others around the world, and, they are not all conservative no matter what you are reading please remember Spain, Italy, and Greece for example, are proving that where there’s a real movement and a messenger that embraces its issues, people will respond.

How can it be that a David Brooks is calling for another party, and we’re not hearing the call from and for progressives? It means going local for a long while and constructing the building blocks, but as Vermont has taught that can also develop independent candidates that can contend nationally as well. It’s all hard work. When does consensus congeal that it is time for more shoulders on that wheel?

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