Nonprofits should serve communities, not candidates

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Should democracy withstand another infusion of dark money into politics? We think not. That’s why we are asking Congress to make sure charitable nonprofits remain protected from becoming a vehicle for partisan politics and campaign spending.

A bedrock tenet of effective civic engagement in our country is the right and responsibility to petition government at every level.  Individual citizens, for-profit businesses and nonprofit organizations participate in this fundamental American activity when they advocate for or against issues that impact them. Unlike individuals and some businesses, however, charitable nonprofits must stop short of endorsing political candidates or spending their money on election activities. This legal restriction is integral to the identity, reputation, and mission of charitable nonprofits and is supported by almost all nonprofits.

The Johnson Amendment is the statute which keeps political spending and campaign activity out of charitable nonprofit activity. It was placed into law in 1954 under President Eisenhower and, since then, has effectively protected nonprofits, including religious congregations and foundations, from being used inappropriately by politicians, political parties and political operatives who seek contributions, endorsements and favoritism.

As Congress works on passing a tax bill this year, the protections of the Johnson Amendment are imperiled. Both the House and Senate passed their versions of tax reform legislation, and one of the significant differences between the two centered around this provision.

The House tax reform bill, the “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act,” includes Section 5201 which creates a giant loophole in the existing, highly favored prohibition. The loophole is significant enough that, according to Thomas Barthold, Joint Committee on Taxation Chief of Staff, the alteration will cost an estimated $2.1 billion over the next 10 years. The Senate bill contains no such provision to undermine the existing statute. However, the process has begun for the two chambers to reconcile their differences, which creates an opportunity for House changes to the Johnson Amendment to make their way into tax reform at the last minute. Should that happen, nonprofit organizations will become another avenue for partisan electioneering and dark money. 

Organizations that want to engage in partisan political activity are free to do so, but they can’t and shouldn’t receive tax-exempt status from the federal government at the same time. Furthermore, donors who want to contribute to political campaigns can and should do so. But they should not receive a tax deduction in return.

Politicizing nonprofit organizations, including foundations and houses of worship, is antithetical to how we expect nonprofits and democracy to work. It should alarm every American. Many of us freely admit we’re tired of the political cacophony. The weakening of the Johnson Amendment will make it worse, allowing politicking to enter our nonprofit board rooms, houses of worship, constituent and donor relations, and institutional identities. Legalizing the use of tax-deductible donations for political activities will erode the confidence Americans have in nonprofit organizations which do so much to make our communities great places to live, work and raise a family.

In Montana, 158 nonprofit organizations have taken a stand against changes to the Johnson Amendment by signing a nationwide Community Letter in Support of Nonprofit Nonpartisanship (givevoice.org). Please stand with us for integrity of charitable nonprofits, the good name of the nonprofit sector, and transparency in politics by resisting change to the current law.

Today, ask Sens. Steve Daines and Jon Tester and Rep. Greg Gianforte to insist on “no changes to the Johnson Amendment” in order to keep the lines clean between political and charitable activity. Nonprofits are here to serve communities, not candidates. Let’s keep it that way.

Richard Turbiak represents Citizens for a Better Flathead, Linda Engh-Grady represents Whitefish Community Foundation, and Chany Ockert represents Chany Reon Ockert Consulting in Kalispell.

They were joined in signing this opinion by Geoff Birnbaum, Youth Homes (Missoula); Kathy Hadley, National Center for Appropriate Technology (Butte); Susan Denson Guy, The Emerson Center for the Arts & Culture (Bozeman); Susan Hay Patrick, United Way of Missoula County; Matt Lundgren, Friendship House of Christian Service (Billings); Liz Moore, Montana Nonprofit Association; Sheila Rice, Neighborworks Great Falls; Mary Rutherford, Montana Community Foundation; Michelle Belknap, Easter Seals-Goodwill Northern Rocky Mountain; and Paul Tuss, Bear Paw Development Corporation (Havre).

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