Former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman Rep. Chris Van Hollen is filing a federal lawsuit against the Internal Revenue Service, alleging that IRS guidelines for 501(c)(4) organizations distort federal law and thereby encourage 501(c)(4) "social welfare" groups to heavily engage in political speech, contrary to statutory requirements that a 501(c)(4) exist solely for "the promotion of social welfare."
Of course, numerous conservative 501(c)(4) groups have taken heavily to the TV airwaves in campaign cycles past to run issue advertising that has bedeviled liberal Democrats and favored conservative Republicans, but nowhere in his 11-paragraph August 21 story on Van Hollen's lawsuit did Washington Post staff writer Josh Hicks consider that the Maryland Democrat just might have a partisan motivation behind his actions. As Georgetown University Law adjunct professor Warren L. Dean Jr. noted in a piece in the Washington Times in June , there's evidence this hobby horse about 501(c)(4) political activity is indeed motivated by Van Hollen's penchant for using the heavy hand of government to attack conservatives (emphasis mine):
Rep. Chris Van Hollen served as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for four years. Under his leadership, the committee filed a complaint with the now-infamous Lois Lerner at the IRS, who pleaded the Fifth Amendment before Congress and was placed on administrative leave. The complaint was filed against a conservative 501(c)(4) organization called Freedom’s Watch. This organization was made up of supporters of President George W. Bush’s war on terrorism. According to The Wall Street Journal, the committee’s complaint was followed by the initiation of a futile audit of the organization’s political activity. Then the IRS, in an unprecedented move, audited Freedom’s Watch’s donors as well, only to abandon the audits after they were exposed.
Mr. Van Hollen’s complaint took the form of a letter to Ms. Lerner dated April 29, 2008. It was not prompted by the Citizens United case, in which the Supreme Court upheld First Amendment prohibitions against government restrictions on political contributions by corporations, associations and labor unions. That case was not decided by the high court until January 2010. Accordingly, Mr. Van Hollen’s effort to blame the Supreme Court’s decision for the IRS targeting of conservative 501(c)(4) organizations seems odd. That is not all.
Mr. Van Hollen now says that it is very important to get Ms. Lerner “out of the way.” Having once tried to use her as political muscle, she has now become expendable. That politicians rely on implausible deniability and blame the usual suspects is nothing new, but the notion that low-level employees of the IRS conceived of the targeting scheme is ludicrous. The fact is that the employees of the IRS did what their superiors expected of them, and their superiors did what politicians in power, like Mr. Van Hollen, were asking them to do.
Mr. Van Hollen also blames the very tax laws that he and his colleagues were responsible for at the time. He now says he does not understand how an organization dedicated to social welfare can engage in political activity, even though this has been the case for decades. It is a curious theory coming from a man who seems to think the government should have a large role over the welfare of its citizens, including their health care. Nevertheless, he could easily find someone among his constituents who could explain it to him if he is confused.
For his part, Hicks also tagged three decidedly left-of-center groups that has likewise filed suit against the IRS as mere "campaign finance watchdog groups." Those lefty groups are Democracy 21, the Campaign Legal Center, and Public Citizen.
To be fair, Hicks reached out for a Republican perspective from "a spokesman for the GOP side of the House Budget Committee" but that staffer "failed to comment."
That said, there are plenty of other conservatives and Republicans whom Hicks could have contacted and quoted in order to provide balance to the article.
As to Van Hollen's complaint, here's what the relevant text of the federal statute actually says (emphasis mine)
(A) Civic leagues or organizations not organized for profit but operated exclusively for the promotion of social welfare, or local associations of employees, the membership of which is limited to the employees of a designated person or persons in a particular municipality, and the net earnings of which are devoted exclusively to charitable, educational, or recreational purposes.
(B) Subparagraph (A) shall not apply to an entity unless no part of the net earnings of such entity inures to the benefit of any private shareholder or individual.
Both liberal and conservative 501(c)(4) groups would argue that issue ads, be they on TV, radio, or the Internet, are fundamentally "educational" in nature, alerting citizens to policy positions and implications of legislation that citizens might otherwise not be aware of. Indeed, those issue ads are predicated in advancing "social welfare" by informing viewers about those issues and controversies and giving citizens information to act on to engage themselves in the political process.
Critics like Van Hollen may complain that "political" organizations should not be getting 501(c)(4) exemptions as an "educational" group, but the actual text of the law seems to cut against his position, not bolster it.