If Congress were interested in fixing the problem, they'd write a coherent law that erases the multitude of ambiguities and loopholes in the current legal framework, but instead they've chosen a political response that could actually make things worse, slipping another dose of convoluted language into last week's omnibus funding bill:
The relevant section is buried on page 439 of the gigantic bill. Just nine lines long and 68 words, the two clauses say money designated for the IRS cannot be used to "target citizens of the United States for exercising any right guaranteed under the first Amendment" or to target "groups for regulatory scrutiny based on their ideological beliefs."On the surface, that sounds reasonable. After all, targeting on the basis of ideology is bad, right? Well, as Patrick Caldwell of Mother Jones writes:
Tacked on as a symbolic effort to mollify conservatives’ anti-IRS mania, the text is so overly vague that it could mean the dissolution of longstanding rules. Or nothing at all. No one's really sure.The problem is that while the law says that the IRS should treat all political groups the same, it also says that donations to some of those groups should be tax-exempt while donations to other groups should not be tax-exempt. There's no way to enforce that law without scrutinizing groups that seek tax-exempt status, and there's no way to scrutinize those groups without generating accusations of unfairness.
According to one former IRS official who spoke with Caldwell, the legislation has the potential to allow any non-profit group to engage in political activity without jeopardizing their tax status because it is impossible to enforce existing regulations without evaluating the content of their speech. That outcome doesn't appear to be what Congress had in mind when it passed the legislation, but according to Caldwell's reporting, it's plausible that it will be what happens.
If Congress doesn't want the IRS to scrutinize political activity when evaluating whether non-profit groups are entitled to tax-exempt status, then it should give that responsibility to some other agency. Unless Congress wants all political donations to be tax deductible, somebody needs to determine which groups truly are non-profits and which groups are just fronts for political operations.