The IRS and Treasury Department announced proposed guidelines clarifying the definition of political activities for social welfare nonprofits Tuesday afternoon, a move that could restrict the spending of the dark money groups that dumped more than $254 million of anonymous money into the 2012 elections. Read the guidelines here. However, the guidelines, which finally define what constitutes “candidate-related political activity,” aren’t a done deal. They will take some time for public comment and debate, and more time to finalize. (The IRS asks that all comments and requests for a public hearing be submitted by Feb. 27.) Experts also cautioned that the real test of oversight on the political spending by nonprofits will be how these regulations are enforced, something that the IRS has been so far reticent to do.
The proposed regulations “are only as good as the extent of compliance with them, which history would indicate requires a realistic threat of enforcement and significant sanctions on the groups involved and probably the individuals running those groups,” said Lloyd Hitoshi Mayer, a law professor and associate dean at the University of Notre Dame who specializes in nonprofits and campaign finance.
Social welfare nonprofits are allowed to spend money on election ads without reporting their donors, as long as they can prove that social welfare – and not politics – is their primary purpose. But the IRS guidelines for political spending have been vague. They state that the agency will apply a “facts and circumstances” test to each ad, meaning that if an ad walks and talks like a political ad, it’s a political ad.