There should be less federal regulation of political speech.
By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey
President Obama and his political allies have dismissed as “phony scandals” mounting evidence that the Internal Revenue Service and other federal agencies hindered and punished conservative advocacy groups. Meanwhile, efforts are under way to impose even more regulation on core political speech.
The government’s abuses are very real, but the scandal’s lessons are not appreciated: The federal regulation of political speech has already gone further than can be justified by existing law, let alone the Constitution.
The debate about political speech has so far focused on a particular type of nonprofit entity: social-welfare organizations exempt from federal income tax under section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code. A group qualifies for this exempt status if it is “operated exclusively for the promotion of social welfare.” This means its efforts cannot inure to the benefit of specific individuals, members or private clubs.
On Wednesday, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D., Md.) filed a federal lawsuit seeking to force the IRS to tighten the eligibility rules for politically active groups seeking 501(c)(4) status. Yet “social welfare” is a capacious term that includes many policy and political goals—from preserving historic battlefields to repealing laws for or against same-sex marriage.
The IRS has long recognized this by permitting such groups, if consistent with their stated social-welfare purpose, to engage primarily or even wholly in public-issue advocacy or lobbying. In other words, they are permitted to engage in political speech directed at government officials. At the same time, however, the IRS says that political campaign activities cannot account for more than half of a 501(c)(4)’s expenditures. But the statute itself contains no such limitation. In short, the IRS effectively robs social-welfare organizations of one half of their potential political speech.
This distinction between lobbying and election advocacy is entirely arbitrary. Electing candidates who support an organization’s principles and goals may be the most effective (and in some cases the only) means of achieving that organization’s social-welfare purpose. Yet the IRS rules here are consistent with the federal government’s overall approach to regulating elections since at least the 1970s. Bizarre as it may be in the world’s leading democracy, federal election laws treat the most effective form of political speech as the most disfavored. Stricter regulations like those sought by Rep. Van Hollen and others would only worsen the problem.
Until recently, the Supreme Court largely supported this system, interpreting the Constitution’s free-speech guarantees to permit these limitations in order to avoid corruption or its appearance. Even so, the court rejected efforts to control political activities, including expenditures, in support of a candidate but made independently of a candidate’s own campaign organization. The exception was corporations, which could not make independent expenditures.
In Citizens United v. FEC (2010), a majority of the court more sensitive to the First Amendment invalidated restrictions on independent political campaign expenditures by corporations, associations and labor unions. Since Citizens United, the use of 501(c)(4) organizations to engage in political speech has burgeoned—largely because such groups need not disclose their donors as purely political organizations still must. Calls for the IRS to close this supposed “loophole” also have multiplied.
That is a bad idea, not supported by the statutory language, and it is unconstitutional to boot. Although the Supreme Court has held that there is no duty to subsidize political speech through tax exemptions, there is no plausible basis on which the IRS (or Congress) can limit tax-exempt status to groups that eschew independent campaign spending while permitting other forms of political speech, such as lobbying.
Where the potential for corruption—for example, giving money to a candidate in exchange for favors—is absent, as the Citizens United ruling found with regard to independent expenditures, treating one form of political speech differently than others is not rational. It fails even the most deferential judicial review standard, much less the more exacting compelling governmental interest ordinarily applied under the First Amendment. The IRS-created 50% limit is vulnerable to challenge on the same grounds. It should make no difference under the existing statutory language what form the political speech of a 501(c)(4) takes; the organization should be able to spend 100% of its funds on independent campaign spending.
There also are sound policy reasons to cut 501(c)(4)s loose from such regulations. Such groups allow ordinary people to compete with the better-funded media industry, political parties, celebrities and other wealthy players, in the marketplace of ideas. Constraining the activities of 501(c)4s would not, as “progressives” claim, protect the little guy and level the playing field. Instead it would protect entrenched interests and, most of all, incumbents who can raise money simply because they hold public office.
Congress could abolish the 501(c)(4) status entirely. However, neither the IRS nor Congress can produce a result in which some groups, whose social-welfare purposes can be advanced through nonpolitical speech (such as promoting botany or historical research), can use 100% of their resources to do so, while others groups, whose social-welfare purposes can be advanced only through political speech, cannot.
To conclude otherwise would enable the government to engage in content-based restrictions on speech that have always been viewed as the most insidious violation of the First Amendment. The Supreme Court also has long made clear that Congress cannot deploy tax subsidies as a means of suppressing “dangerous ideas.”
The IRS scandal is a moment of reckoning. It offers the country a unique opportunity to free a substantial portion of political speech from government regulation. This is an opportunity not to be wasted. Republicans should broaden their oversight inquiries into the constitutional and statutory basis on which the IRS has limited 501(c)(4) expenditures in the past—and force the agency to justify any plans it has to continue or expand those limits.
Messrs. Rivkin and Casey served in the Justice Department during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. They are partners in the Washington, D.C., office of Baker & Hostetler LLP.