IRS Scandal Is News, but Tax-Exempt Status Was Never Politically Neutral

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

In a piece for Colorlines, Brentin Mock places the Internal Revenue Service's targeting of Tea Party groups in historical context.

It's interesting to note how non-profits became forbidden from political campaign activity to begin with. For that, look back to Lyndon B. Johnson, the U.S. President who helped usher in the Voting Rights Act and stronger civil rights legislation. As a congressional Senator representing Texas, he helped change the IRS code so that it prohibited 501c(3) groups from intervening in elections.

A 2001 Boston College Law Review article from Patrick L. O'Daniel, currently a law professor at University of Texas at Austin, tells why LBJ made this change. At the time, 1954, Johnson was up for re-election for U.S. Senate, and wealthy, ultra-conservative forces were tooling up for his defeat. Johnson believed that two non-profit organizations backed by rich conservatives were working to undermine his re-election campaign.

One of those, the Facts Forum, was a "Red Scare" group that thought America was about to become communist. The other, the Committee for Constitutional Government, was regarded then as "the wealthiest and most powerful of the extreme rightwing groups in the United States." It was founded by Frank Gannett, who ran one of the largest newspaper chains in the nation at the time (His Gannett Company Inc. still owns USA Today and dozens of other newspapers and news websites). These organizations had not only McCarthy-ites, but also anti-Semites and strict racial segregationists among their ranks …

Tea party groups today claim non-partisanship, despite clear evidence otherwise, but it looks like the history of tax exempt status for non-profits wasn't politically neutral to begin with.


Read Brentin Mock's entire piece at Colorlines.

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