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“For His Next Trick, Trump Questions Clinton’s Religious Faith”: The Last Person Who Should Question Others’ Faith

Recently, most of Donald Trump’s offensive rants have focused on race and ethnicity, but not religion. Any chance he can pick up the slack and start making faith-based insults, too?

As it turns out, yes, he can.

Donald Trump questioned Hillary Clinton’s commitment to her Christian faith on Tuesday, saying that little is known about her spiritual life even though she’s been in the public eye for decades.

Speaking to a group of top social conservative evangelical Christian leaders at a gathering in New York City, Trump said, “we don’t know anything about Hillary in terms of religion.”

“Now, she’s been in the public eye for years and years, and yet there’s no – there’s nothing out there,” Trump said. “There’s like nothing out there. It’s going to be an extension of Obama but it’s going to be worse, because with Obama you had your guard up. With Hillary you don’t, and it’s going to be worse.”

As The Hill’s report noted, the behind-closed-doors meeting was not open to the public or to journalists, but one faith leader recorded Trump’s comments and posted them online.

The presumptive Republican presidential nominee added that the religious leaders in attendance should “pray for everyone, but what you really have to do is pray to get everybody out to vote for one specific person.”

Let’s unpack this a bit, because even by Trump standards, this is pretty amazing.

First, to suggest Americans “don’t know anything about” Hillary Clinton “in terms of religion” is absurd. The Democratic candidate has spoken about her Methodist faith many times, including lengthy comments about her views on Christianity and the Bible at an Iowa event earlier this year.

Second, I’d love to hear more about why, exactly, Trump and his like-minded friends had their “guard up” about President Obama’s faith. What is it, specifically, that led Trump and his allies to put their “guard up” about his religion?

Third, when Trump urged faith leaders to “pray to get everybody out to vote for one specific person,” he was approaching a potentially dangerous legal line. Under federal tax law, houses of worship and those responsible for tax-exempt ministries cannot legally intervene in political elections. Taking steps to have parishioners “vote for one specific person” is problematic.

And finally, of any political figure in America, Donald J. Trump is perhaps the last person who should be questioning others’ faith.

The GOP candidate’s clumsiness on matters of faith has been a point of concern for some conservative voters before, and last summer, the New York Republican refused to say which parts of Scripture are important to him, saying it was “private.” (Asked whether he’s drawn more to the New or Old Testaments, Trump said, “Both.”)

And now Mr. Two Corinthians wants to complain that “we don’t know anything about Hillary in terms of religion”? Seriously? I don’t expect much from Trump, but for him, there is no upside to picking this particular fight.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, June 21, 2016

June 22, 2016 Posted by | Donald Trump, Faith, Hillary Clinton, Religion | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Getting Secret Money Out Of Campaigns”: It’s In The Public Interest To Disallow Sleazy Secret Money In Campaigns

The Internal Revenue Service spent years averting its eyes while clever campaign operatives abused the tax code for political purposes. Advocacy groups, mostly on the right, wanted to run attack ads while concealing the source of their money, and they came up with a brilliant way to do it: claim to be “social welfare” groups, which are allowed to hide donors.

Federal statutes say these groups can only engage in social welfare activity, but the tax agency decided political activity was fine as long as it wasn’t the primary purpose of the group. That helped create the torrent of secret money that poisoned the last few federal elections. The I.R.S. never explained, though, what kinds of activities are considered political, or why these groups, also known as 501(c)(4)’s, should be allowed to participate in campaigns at all.

On Thursday, long after the abuse became too rampant to ignore, the I.R.S. took the first tentative steps at reining in the problems it helped create. It proposed a definition of “candidate-related political activity,” an important starting point in determining what tax-exempt groups are really allowed to do. But it will have to do much more than that if it wants to be taken seriously as a regulator on this battlefield.

According to a press release from the Treasury Department, the agency said the new definition of political activity would include ads or other communications that clearly advocate for a candidate or party, or ads that mention a candidate within 60 days of a general election (30 days for primaries). That’s a good start for a definition, though 60 days is far too narrow a window — many of these attack ads air a full year or more before voting begins.

Once political activity is defined and separated from social welfare activity, 501(c)(4)’s  will no longer be able to claim, as Karl Rove and others have, that “issue ads” mentioning candidates are for social welfare purposes. (These are the kinds of ads that say, “Dog-kicking is terrible. Call Senator Jones and tell her to stop doing it.”)

But a definition alone won’t do any good unless the I.R.S. tells these groups how much political activity is permitted. The ideal answer would be: zero. Social welfare groups have no business meddling in politics. Any group with a political interest has its own place in the tax code — they can be a 527 political organization. Those groups, which include political parties and official campaign organizations, also get tax exemptions, but there is one crucial difference: they have to disclose their donors, and 501(c)(4)’s don’t.

Conservatives immediately claimed that the I.R.S. was trying to take away their free-speech rights, which is laughable. Absolutely nothing is stopping advocacy from running ads, and the Supreme Court, in the Citizens United case, even granted corporations the right to make unlimited donations to independent groups that produce political ads. But there is no right to keep these donations a secret.

The Treasury announcement, tantalizingly, said the I.R.S. would consider comments from the public on how much political activity should be permitted for a social welfare group, suggesting that decision was farther down the road. It’s in the agency’s interest to end the confusion surrounding 501(c)(4)’s, which has led to charges that it has been arbitrary in its audits. But it’s in the public interest to do even more, and disallow sleazy secret money in campaigns.

 

By: David Firestone, Editors Blog, The New York Times, November 27, 2013

December 1, 2013 Posted by | Campaign Financing, Politics | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Tax-Exempt Hatred”: The IRS Should Strictly Police Hate Groups Seeking Non-Profit Tax-Exempt Status

A few weeks ago, Forbes magazine published an intriguing column by Peter J. Reilly that asked an important question: If the Southern Poverty Law Center calls the Family Research Council a hate group, should the IRS take action?

In the column, Reilly criticizes a paper by University of Georgia Professor Alex Reed. Reed argues that the IRS must do a better job enforcing its procedure 86-43, which is the standard it uses to determine if a tax exempt organization is advocating an educational point of view or one that produces materials that are factually unsupported, distorted or make substantial use of inflammatory and denigrating language. If it organization does the latter, the procedure indicates that it does not qualify for tax-exempt status.

Reed writes that the IRS’ poor oversight of 86-43 has allowed many out-of-compliance organizations to keep their preferential tax benefits, particularly hate groups. Hate groups advocate hostility toward certain groups of people because of their race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity. He references The Family Research Council, which has a long history of publishing offensive propaganda about the LGBT community.

Other tax-exempt organizations not mentioned by Reed, but with similar reputations include: the anti-LGBT Family Watch International,  whose research archive contains numerous offensive, junk science studies on gays and lesbians, and the xenophobic Federation for American Immigration Reform, which has volumes of distortions broadly denigrating immigrants.

Reilly argues that strict enforcement of 86-43 wouldn’t work because “if somebody expresses a view that you find threatening to your world view, you are likely to conclude that they hate you.” In other words, it would be impossible for any IRS employees to enforce 86-43, because any threat to their beliefs would trump their professional obligations. He ignores the possibility that the IRS could punish employees for targeting organizations based on their personal or political beliefs, an obvious, much needed reform given the IRS’s political targeting of tea party organizations earlier this year.

Both Reilly and Reed would do better not framing their arguments around what organizations the Southern Poverty Law Center deems hate groups. In fact, the hate group term doesn’t even need to be involved. Any organization whose educational materials don’t conform to the procedure should be scrutinized. The IRS must ground its enforcement on its rules, not the Southern Poverty Law Center’s position.

Enforcement has nothing to do with limiting an organization’s free speech. The Family Research Council, Family Watch International, Federation for Immigration Reform or any other group masquerading as educational institutions don’t need tax-exempt status to exercise their civil liberties. One is not necessary to the other.

Enforcement has to do with the fair application of rules designed to maintain the integrity of the tax-exempt system. Preferential tax treatment is, for all intents and purposes, a government subsidy administered through the tax system. If a tax-exempt organization is flouting the standards by which its status is awarded, it shouldn’t expect the government to continue to assist it in the coordination of its financial activities. The government is not obligated to make it easier for these organizations to threaten people’s basic rights and freedoms. In fact, the government has a moral, legal and ethical obligation to do the opposite.

By: Jamie Chandler, Washington Whispers, U. S. News and World Report, November 19, 2013

November 20, 2013 Posted by | IRS | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A New Toy To Play With”: Where Darrell Issa Sees A Potential Political Scandal, Everyone Else Sees Reality

The discredited IRS controversy clearly didn’t work out the way House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) had hoped, to the point that he no longer remembers the serious-but-false allegations he carelessly threw around just a month ago. The far-right Californian now wants to “expand” his investigation, which is a pleasant-sounding euphemism for, “The questions I asked produced answers that didn’t fit my preconceived narrative, so I’ve come up with new ones.”

And this week, after Issa grew tired of his broken old toys, he found something new to play with: officials at the Federal Election Commission apparently asked the IRS’s tax exemption division last year about the status of some conservative political groups. Issa pounced, ordering the FEC to produce “all documents and communications between or among any FEC official or employee and any IRS official or employee for the period January 1, 2008 to the present.”

So what seems to be the trouble? There’s no evidence that the IRS shared private information with the FEC, but Issa and his allies want to know if maybe it happened anyway, and if there’s some convoluted way to connect this to the debunked “scandal” Issa was so invested in.

As Dave Weigel explained, there’s just not much here.

This level of scrutiny, with this much evidence, is a puzzle to some former FEC commissioners. “From what I’ve seen so far this doesn’t look like anything,” said Larry Noble, a Democratic appointee until 2000 who now advocates for public funding of elections. “It looked like what happened was that the staff contacted the IRS and asked for what was public. When I was there, certainly, it was always clear that the IRS would not give out anything that was not public. The IRS has a list of c3 groups, but it’s often out of date, so people check with the source. This looked like a routine inquiry for public information.”

A former Republican FEC commissioner said largely the same thing.

Where Issa sees a potential political scandal, everyone else sees routine and uncontroversial bureaucracy.

Tax Analysts reported this week:

“There are many legitimate or at least innocuous reasons for the FEC and the IRS to be sharing information about politically active nonprofits. The two agencies share regulatory oversight authority,” [James P. Joseph of Arnold & Porter LLP] said.

Ofer Lion of Hunton & Williams LLP said it makes sense for the IRS and FEC to talk to each other when dealing with politically active tax-exempt organizations and applicants. “Most of this probably falls within the FEC’s field of expertise anyway, so it makes sense that they would collaborate,” he said. He added that it would be disastrous if the two agencies went after organizations for political reasons but that he sees no evidence yet that they have done that.

John Pomeranz of Harmon, Curran, Spielberg & Eisenberg LLP said it’s possible an FEC staffer contacted Lerner to find out if a particular group had tax-exempt status, which is public information. If Lerner provided an answer, that would be fine, he said.

“It would be great if everybody went through official channels to get information like that, but I think there are a lot of people who rely on contacts inside the IRS to get a quick answer when it takes too long to get an answer the other way,” Pomeranz said.

Gregory L. Colvin of Adler and Colvin said he is not surprised the IRS and FEC contacted each other regarding the AFF and other organizations that spend money on broadcast advertising featuring candidates for federal office. He said that for years the two agencies have been criticized for not coordinating their enforcement of tax and election laws, which “overlap in some respects and leave gaps in others.”

In other words, the “scandal” is that some folks at the FEC were looking for official information on a couple of political groups that were flouting tax-exempt rules, and instead of following bureaucratic, inter-agency procedures, they just sent emails to the IRS.

If you care deeply about bureaucratic, inter-agency procedures related to the FEC and the IRS, this might be fascinating, but if Darrell Issa wants the political world to stay awake, he’s going to have to do better than this.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, August 9, 2013

August 10, 2013 Posted by | Politics | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“An Untenable Position”: How John Boehner And Republicans Helped Create The IRS Scandal

The political powers the IRS was recently accused of abusing to harass Tea Party groups were given to it against its will by Congress — including some of the agency’s biggest critics today — over 10 years ago, according to documents and a former senior tax official. The revelation, which has been missing in most if not all of the commentary on the scandal, adds a key bit of context to it.

In a half-measure effort to strengthen campaign finance disclosure laws in 2000, Congress put the IRS, effectively for the first time, in the awkward position of having to make judgment calls about whether nonprofit advocacy groups would be required to disclose their donors because too much of their activities crossed the theoretical line between “issues advocacy” and “political campaign intervention.” It’s a messy and inherently subjective business, and something officials did not want to get more involved in, predicting it would lead to exactly the kind of controversy we just witnessed. “The IRS would inevitably be subject to claims of discrimination and political bias for actions taken or not taken,” an internal memo from the Treasury Department’s office of Tax Policy sent in June 2000 and obtained by Salon reads.

“The fuse was lit in 2000 with this law, which put the IRS in an untenable position. It’s almost surprising it didn’t explode on them earlier,” Steven Arkin, a former senior Treasury and IRS official, who proceeded Lois Lerner as the director of rulings and agreements for the IRS’ tax exempt organizations office, told Salon.

The law, a stand-alone bill numbered H.R.4762, had the best of intentions, but backfired thanks to an enormous loophole. After a comprehensive campaign finance bill failed, reformers pushed a narrow bill to increase disclosure of groups organized under section 527 of the tax code. That was reserved for groups primarily involved in electoral politics — but before this law, 527s that didn’t engage in explicit electoral intervention didn’t have to file any paperwork of any kind with the IRS. They incorporated as legal entities in their states, and that was that. No information on donors, expenditures or even their existence needed to be made public. If they did engage in electioneering, they would have to disclose that information to the FEC, but only for each specific activity. Thanks to the lax standards, these groups earned the moniker “Stealth PACs” and became the bane of campaign finance reform advocates.

When lawmakers brought up a bill to force 527 groups to disclose their donors just before Congress was about to go on its July 4 recess in 2000, they made a concession to skeptical Republicans and some Democrats who were looking out for liberal nonprofits: 501(c) groups — business leagues and the so-called social welfare organizations at the center of this year’s IRS controversy — would not be included. This didn’t seem like a big deal at the time, since almost everyone who wanted to meddle in politics organized as a 527 and not a 501(c)4. Both types of groups are tax-exempt, but 527′s had free rein to engage in electoral politics, while 501(c)4′s are limited to spending less than half their money on it. Social welfare and other groups are permitted to engage in unlimited issue advocacy, so long as their efforts to elect or defeat particular candidates were not their “primary” activity.

But former Sen. Russ Feingold, a staunch campaign finance reform advocate, saw what would happen if you cracked down on 527′s and not 501(c)4′s. “By only focusing on disclosure in one type of tax-exempt organization and not on others, we leave open the use of the other type of tax-exempt organizations by those who want to hide their contributions and activity behind the cloak of anonymity that these tax-exempt organizations provide,” Feingold warned on the floor during the Senate’s very short debate. He added that he was concerned that the IRS was “not prepared” to take on this burden, given the administration’s concern.

Sen. John McCain, the Senate sponsor, said that while it would be nice to do all groups, “focusing narrowly on 527 organizations” was necessary to “ensure that the legislation survives a constitutional test.” In the House, Wisconsin Democrat Tom Barrett, acknowledged that “this bill is not perfect” since it exempted social welfare organizations, but said including them might be “poison pill provisions” that would “scuttle this important reform effort.”

The bill passed overwhelmingly in both chambers. In the House, it was 385-39, with the “yay” column including Republican Reps. John Boehner, Dave Camp, Paul Ryan, Jim DeMint and many others who would later make hay of the way the IRS regulated 501(c) groups. Meanwhile, the Senate approved it 92-6, with McCain, Lindsey Graham, Rick Santorum and many others voting in favor. Sen. Mitch McConnell, a longtime opponent of campaign finance reform, voted no, but said, “I recommend to my Republican colleagues that they vote for this bill,” calling it “relatively benign and harmless.”

The fallout was not particularly surprising. Two months after the law went into effect, the Washington Post reported that “instead of complying with the new law, a number of groups are instead reconstituting themselves under other provisions of the tax code that do not force them to reveal their donors.” Ben Ginsberg, a prominent GOP election lawyer, told the Post he couldn’t keep up with with his clients’ requests to convert. “We’d be running out of fingers and toes” just to count them all, he said. Claiming to be new groups, they reorganized as 501(c)4′s, which can do basically all the same things the old 527′s did, just under a different section of the tax code. So in the end, Congress swapped out 527 “Stealth PACs” for 501(c)4 “Dark Money” groups.

But while the change seems banal, it effectively transferred oversight of this species in the campaign finance ecology to the IRS, an agency less well equipped to handle delicate political questions than the FEC, which was designed with a bipartisan commission and other features precisely to handle touchy political issues, including fundraising matters impacting members of Congress themselves.

“The proposals to amend the Internal Revenue Code would put the IRS in the position where it, rather than the FEC, must become the “watchdog,” the Treasury Department memo, first reported by Sam Stein at the Huffington Post, warned before the law passed. “Imposition of such a burden on the IRS would be an administrative nightmare for the agency.”

“It never should have been given to the IRS,” said Arkin, the former tax official.

It’s a fitting coda to the IRS scandal that the problem was largely created by the people most outraged by it.

 

By: Alex Seitz-Wald, Salon, July 11, 2013

July 13, 2013 Posted by | Internal Revenue Service | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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