Through the years, I have had the privilege to be involved with a variety of charitable, education, and philanthropic organizations. Despite these organizations having different community-focused missions, one common denominator among them is their adherence to the provision in the U.S. tax code that requires tax-exempt organizations to be nonpartisan in their interactions with government.
The provision, known as the Johnson Amendment, has been in place since 1954 and prohibits tax-exempt charitable, religious, and philanthropic organizations from using their resources to support or oppose candidates for public office. The Johnson Amendment is a vital protection that shields the entire nonprofit sector from the pressures of partisan candidates and allows the organizations serving our community to focus on their missions instead of politics.
Quite simply, it positions charitable, religious, and philanthropic organizations above the partisan fray, which enables them to build bridges with officials on both sides of the aisle. This helps to ensure the trust of their clients, congregants, and donors while gaining broad support from across the community.
Anti-Johnson Amendment forces are working to attach a policy rider that would prevent enforcement against tax-exempt houses of worship that engage in flagrantly partisan activities. Their rider is attached to Section 112 of the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Bill that is part of the package of bills that funds the federal government. Johnson Amendment opponents have strategically attached unrelated policy riders to spending bills because often times such an unpopular provision would not pass as its own legislation.
The rider’s current language creates a major exception to long-standing law for a particular subset of tax-exempt organizations. This opens the door for savvy political donors to misuse tax-exempt nonprofit organizations for partisan purposes.
Instead of donating to party committees, PACs, and other entities specifically designed for partisan purposes, donors would use tax-exempt organizations as conduits for their political giving. Worse, their politically motivated gifts would lack disclosure and accountability to the public while simultaneously receiving a federal tax benefit. This would incentivize and increase the presence of “dark money” in our politics, running counter to the spirit of Washington State’s new DISCLOSE Act, which is intended to shine light on dark money.
Reputation on the line
If this rider becomes law, a major concern is that a few donors could easily ruin the nonpartisan reputation and trust that nonprofits have worked tirelessly to cultivate. For the sake of our community, this cannot be allowed to happen.
During a recent House Appropriations Committee vote on the FSGG, Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, voted to keep the anti-Johnson Amendment policy rider. Thankfully, there is still time for Rep. Herrera Beutler to change her position. By stating clearly that the Johnson Amendment should remain fully intact and working to remove the policy rider at Section 112 in the FSGG, she would be joining the broad coalition of nonprofit organizations, religious denominations, the National Association of State Charity Officials — and our homegrown, statewide Washington Nonprofits — and many other groups committed to the responsible use of charitable resources.
As a board member of Washington Nonprofits, I strongly encourage Rep. Herrera Beutler to join us in keeping all tax-exempt charitable, religious, and philanthropic organizations nonpartisan.
Rhona Sen Hoss is a Vancouver resident and a board member of Washington Nonprofits.