By Emily Peterson-Cassin, Public Citizen
IRS Commissioner John Koskinen’s appearance in front of the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday was a missed opportunity to advance an important discussion about nonprofit governance. Members of the committee from both parties chose to create a political spectacle rather than talk about real solutions for problems with the definition of political activity for tax-exempt organizations.
Republicans proceeded as though the hearing was a genuine impeachment hearing, while denying Commissioner Koskinen any kind of due process –including the rights to have counsel present and to call and cross-examine witnesses.
On the other side of the aisle, many Democrats chose to question the Commissioner about Donald Trump’s unreleased tax returns and the Donald J. Trump Foundation’s alleged self-dealing. Some Democrats did defend the Commissioner and labeled the proceeding a “sham” and a “farce.” Even though Koskinen made it evident early in the hearing that he could not comment on particular taxpayer situations, a number of Democrats asked again and again about thinly veiled hypotheticals relating to Trump’s tax situation.
It is understandable that Democrats would not ask Koskinen questions related to the impeachment attempt by the House Freedom Caucus, given that the impeachment is doomed to fail and is merely designed to make headlines. Democrats could have used the opportunity to show the American public that they are serious about creating clearer rules for tax-exempt organizations rather than respond to a political attack with a political attack of their own.
In fact, members of both parties could have used this as a chance to confront the dysfunction and disunity that has plagued Congress. Instead of asking the Commissioner questions he has already answered and accusing the Commissioner of nefarious acts of which the Treasury Department’s independent Inspector General and the Department of Justice have cleared him, members should have asked substantive questions on topics that can move the government forward.
For example, members of the committee could have used the opportunity to ask Koskinen about the negative effects that the current vague rules have on nonprofits – especially 501(c)(3) organizations. They could have asked about the effects of the Congressional prohibition on the IRS’s ability to engage in rulemaking activities for 501(c)(4)s. Or, they could have asked about how to improve the current tax regime for non-profit organizations moving forward.
Without clearer rules to define political activity, risk averse 501(c)(3)s will be forced to refrain from civic activities that should be permissible because they do not want to jeopardize their tax-exempt status. In addition, bad rules cloud the waters when it comes to responding to an attack on an organization’s core mission. When someone close to a political candidate compares refugees to skittles, how can a refugee-focused 501(c)(3) respond without violating the (c)(3) ban on political activity? There are nonpartisan ways to respond, but because the rules are so unclear, most would choose to remain silent rather than take any risk they could accidentally stray over the line.
The time has come to stop using the IRS to further partisan political goals and instead acknowledge the important nonpartisan role it plays in governing tax-exempt organizations and the critical responsibility it has in maintaining American democracy.