Obviously the IRS has spent a great deal of time trying to determine whether certain groups qualify for exemption under Section 501(c)(4) of the tax code. Why 501(c)(4) status matters so much is really about disclosure and not about tax revenue at all.
Unlike contributions to Section 501(c)(3) organizations, contributions to 501(c)(4)s are not deductible by the donor. Thus, the tax consequences flow to the recipient, not the donor. That is, the recipient does not have to pay taxes on its revenue. There is another part of the tax code, Section 527, that allows political organizations not to pay tax on the revenue they spend for political activities, meaning that there is very little tax difference between a 501(c)(4), which is limited in how much political activity it can conduct, and a 527, which can spend every penny it brings in on political activity.
So why does it matter which section of the tax code applies? Disclosure. To understand how we got here, a little history is needed.
The late 1990s and the rise of the 527
Rewinding to a time when we were still going to party like it’s 1999, there were major limits on a 501(c)(4)’s federal political activity. Specifically, the Federal Election Campaign Act (“FECA”) prohibited corporations from making “independent expenditures” that expressly advocated the election or defeat of candidates. Thus, most 501(c)(4)s were not permitted to make independent expenditures. In other words, although under tax law a 501(c)(4) could engage in limited political activity (as long as it was not its primary purpose), it could not do so under campaign finance law. 501(c)(4)s could, however, engage in issue advocacy, which could refer to candidates.
The IRS’s concept of campaign intervention is broader than just “express advocacy.” Thus, many groups that were engaged in activities that looked a lot like campaign intervention, even if they did not expressly advocate, chose to organize under Section 527. There were no disclosure obligations in that section of the tax code, so it really was a function of choosing which bucket the organization fit into: 501(c)(4) or 527. Even if the IRS were to challenge a 501(c)(4) on the basis that its primary purpose was campaign intervention, the result would have been to categorize it as a 527, and little or no additional tax likely would have been due.
In reality, during this time, many donors simply gave large contributions to the national political parties because they could accept “soft money.” This funded “issue ads” that were often thinly-veiled efforts to support or oppose candidates.
Over time, more and more groups organized under Section 527 and avoided registering as political committees under FECA. They did this by avoiding express advocacy in their public communications. Thus, they could accept unlimited individual and corporate funds, and not disclose their donors or their expenditures anywhere.
Congress reacted to this perceived loophole by passing a law that required organizations claiming to be exempt under Section 527 to register with the IRS and, if they were not otherwise required to disclose their donors and expenditures (with the FEC or a state), file regular disclosures with the IRS.
Thus, even if 527s avoided registering with the FEC – which was important from the standpoint of not being subject to contribution limits of $5,000 per person per year and no corporate contributions – they would still have to disclose donors publicly.
Shortly after the 527 disclosure provisions were added, Congress enacted the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, which prohibited the political parties from accepting soft money. Thus, the only real outlet for those who wished to make large political contributions was 527 committees.
In January 2010, the Supreme Court changed everything by allowing corporations to make independent expenditures. Now 501(c)(4)s could engage in express advocacy, as long as campaign intervention was not their primary purpose. And, 501(c)(4)s do not have to disclose their donors. There are still FEC disclosure obligations for 501(c)(4)’s that make independent expenditures or raise money through explicit calls to elect or defeat a candidate, but through careful crafted messages disclosure can often be avoided.
The IRS controversy
Which brings us to why the IRS needs to know about the political activities of a 501(c)(4) organization. If the 501(c)(4) should actually be a 527, the overall tax consequences are minimal. But, the disclosure consequences are extreme. As a 501(c)(4), an organization can make independent expenditures but avoid disclosing any information about its donors. A 527, on the other hand, has to disclose all of its donors, either to the IRS or to the FEC as a super PAC (or to a state, but this post focuses on federal campaign activities). If the IRS were to deny exempt status to a 501(c)(4) and determine it should be a 527, then it may face penalties for not registering and reporting with the IRS.
In sum, the consequence of whether any of the Tea Party groups involved in this controversy satisfied the requirements of a 501(c)(4) organization or were better classified as 527s was whether their donors had to be disclosed or not. We will discuss at another time whether the tax code is really the best way to deal with disclosure issues.