During the recent legislative session, the Washington Legislature made it a priority to shine light on “dark money” in our state’s elections by passing the 2018 DISCLOSE Act. The DISCLOSE Act is commendable in its intent to ensure accountability in our elections. Washington Nonprofits, our state association for nonprofit organizations, looks forward to working with state government and community-serving organizations to ensure successful implementation and compliance.
Unfortunately, there is a looming threat in Congress right now to restrict a long-standing federal tax law in a way that would significantly exacerbate the “dark money” problem that the DISCLOSE Act is intended to address.
The Johnson Amendment, a part of the Internal Revenue Code since 1954, requires tax-exempt 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations to be nonpartisan. Specifically, that law declares that, in exchange for the ability to receive tax-deductible contributions, charitable, religious and philanthropic organizations may not “support or oppose any candidate for public office.” The Johnson Amendment rightfully prohibits tax-exempt nonprofits from endorsing candidates for public office and from devoting resources to the election or defeat of a candidate. The Johnson Amendment shields nonprofit organizations from the nastiness of partisan politics and enables us to keep our collective focus on our missions, rather than partisan politics.
Over the past year, the president, vice president, other powerful politicians, and well-funded interest groups have sought to repeal or weaken this important protection. Anti-Johnson Amendment leaders attempted unsuccessfully to repeal it during the tax reform process and to weaken it during the omnibus spending bill debate earlier this year. Now they are trying hard to attach an anti-Johnson Amendment rider to weaken enforcement of the law to an important spending bill. Opponents must resort to this procedural tactic because they know that such a harmful provision would not pass as a freestanding bill. Worse, they are doing so in the face of widespread opposition from charitable, religious and philanthropic groups throughout the country.
Section 112 of the Financial Services and General Government spending bill would effectively block enforcement of the Johnson Amendment against “churches” and their auxiliaries – even when they engage in egregious, partisan activities. The rider offers no reductions or lessening of the restrictions on enforcement against secular organizations and leaders, thus creating a framework that explicitly encourages discriminatory enforcement of the law. All 501(c)(3) organizations and their supporters should recognize that weakening the protections of the Johnson Amendment for any of us weakens it for all of us.
Weakening the Johnson Amendment would be a huge mistake, with serious implications for our communities. When individuals need services or support, the last thing they should have to consider is partisan politics. When donors contribute to an organization’s mission, they should be able to trust that their gift will indeed be used toward mission fulfillment and not partisan electioneering. Repealing this long-standing law would erode the public’s confidence in the nonprofit sector by injecting partisan politics where it does not belong.
Moreover, weakening the Johnson Amendment would unleash a flood of tax-deductible dark money into our country’s political system. Donations to tax-exempt organizations and houses of worship, which exist to provide a public service or benefit, are tax-deductible. Donations to truly charitable works are not required to be disclosed in our state because they are dedicated to the public good. The only exception under the DISCLOSE Act relates to nonpartisan ballot measure advocacy, which the IRS considers a permitted lobbying activity for nonprofits.
If the long-standing Johnson Amendment is repealed or weakened, there can be no doubt that savvy political donors would begin to misuse the nonprofit sector by making contributions to houses of worship and their auxiliaries for partisan political purposes in order to receive a tax deduction. Donors would do this instead of contributing to candidate committees or political parties, or to 501(c)(4)s, political action committees, and superPACs, all of which exist specifically for political purposes but do not provide a tax benefit to their donors or shield from disclosure.
Previous attempts to repeal or weaken the Johnson Amendment failed because nonprofits, houses of worship, state charity regulators, and private citizens raised their voices against this harmful policy proposal. It is time for us to do so again by encouraging our senators and representatives to support preserving the long-standing Johnson Amendment so that all nonprofits and houses of worship can focus on their missions, not politics, and serve communities, not candidates. It is our sincere hope that Washington state’s congressional delegation will stand with the nonprofit organizations that serve their constituents by working to maintain the Johnson Amendment.
Laura Pierce is executive director of Washington Nonprofits.