Republicans now want to investigate tax-exempt groups — just not their own

by Kurt Bardella

“Americans don’t want to live in a nation where big government has the power to silence free speech.” These are the words of House Ways and Means Chairman Jason Smith, who recently began an inquiry into tax-exempt philanthropic and advocacy organizations.

I was surprised to see this effort from a Republican-led committee, since conservatives have often opposed government scrutiny of tax-exempt organizations and transparency in campaign finance systems. My former colleagues at the House Oversight Committee, for instance, launched a major investigation into the Obama administration for “targeting” conservative tax-exempt organizations.

The current black-box campaign finance system is, of course, the brainchild of conservatives. The Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision was the product of a conservative campaign to roll back campaign finance regulations and opened the door to untraceable spending in elections.

Since then, 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) nonprofit groups, which can spend money advocating on policy and don’t have to disclose their donors, have taken on central roles in the political landscape. In fact, according to the research group OpenSecrets, organizations on the left and right that don’t have to disclose their donors spent $963 million in elections in the decade after Citizens United, dwarfing the $129 million spent over the previous decade.

House Republicans claim to be concerned about this growing influence, but only when it is in support of progressive causes. For all the energy Republicans have spent decrying the weaponization of the government to attack political opponents, Rep. Smith of Missouri appears to be doing exactly that. Until now, Republicans have vigorously blocked every campaign finance reform effort over the last decade and voted unanimously to block the Democratic-led Disclose Act last year, which would have provided some transparency.

House Republicans, however, lined up behind their American Confidence in Elections Act, a laundry list of election changes that would make voting harder — and, yes, make dark money spending easier. They say dark money on the left is a problem, and yet they’re pushing legislation that would eliminate many of the few disclosure requirements that still exist.

Smith and the committee also claim that nonprofits are becoming conduits for “foreign influence,” citing misleading xenophobic reports from right-wing media to make their case. But Republicans have minimized and downright denied Russian interference in our elections for years despite bipartisan findings that Russia organized an aggressive campaign to influence the 2016 elections.

Republicans are also ignoring foreign-owned and foreign-influenced corporations pumping money into our elections. Look no further than Rudolph W. Giuliani’s business associate Lev Parnas, who was recently sentenced to 20 months in prison for using a shell company to funnel Russian oligarch money into American elections.

There’s a lot of outrage about the political activities of progressive nonprofits, but Smith’s committee seems to have no desire to look into conservative nonprofits such as Turning Point USA, which helped fund the rally before the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot, or the Public Interest Legal Foundation, whose leaders were involved in disputing the results of the 2020 election.

Dozens of conservative nonprofits, including the Honest Elections Project, led by Leonard Leo, co-chair of the Federalist Society, work to restrict voting rights, with great harm inflicted on voters of color. I can think of nothing more wrong than using tax-exempt groups to spread the “Big Lie,” suppress voting rights or fuel an assault on the U.S. Capitol, yet that does not seem to be a concern for House Republicans. (Leo is reportedly under investigation for allegedly misusing his web of nonprofits to enrich himself; it would be surprising if Republicans decided to examine his case.)

There’s more that the Internal Revenue Service should do to ensure that tax-exempt organizations are following the laws. But Republicans have refused to give the IRS the resources it needs to conduct proper oversight of nonprofit organizations and even voted to rescind more than $80 billion in IRS funding this year. Yet they’re eager to investigate progressive groups when the biggest abuses are coming from their own camp.

Kurt Bardella is a Democratic strategist and a former senior advisor for Republicans on the House Oversight Committee.