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Tuesday, February 21, 2017

What would repealing the Johnson Amendment do for the abortion debate?


Over the course of his campaign, and again since assuming the presidency, Donald Trump has repeatedly advocated for repeal of the Johnson Amendment. Although this is widely being framed as a church-state separation issue, it actually involves non-profits of all stripes, not just churches. The New York Times summarizes the Johnson Amendment as follows:
Under the provision, which was made in 1954, tax-exempt entities like churches and charitable organizations are unable to directly or indirectly participate in any campaign on behalf of, or in opposition to, any candidate. Specifically, ministers are restricted from endorsing or opposing candidates from the pulpit. If they do, they risk losing their tax-exempt status.
But SPL, you're wondering, I've seen lots of non-profit organizations endorse candidates. Didn't "charitable" Planned Parenthood spend something like $30 million in its failed attempt to get Hillary Clinton elected? True. On both sides of the abortion debate (and other debates), the work-around is to set up a political arm with a separate bank account. These political arms typically take the form of a political action committee (PAC) or a 501(c)(4), which don't enjoy the same tax advantages for donors that a 501(c)(3) charitable organization does. As a result, it's harder to raise funds for the political arm.

Conservative religious groups, including some pro-life organizations, have voiced support for repealing the Johnson Amendment. Respectfully, I must disagree. My argument, in a nutshell: (1) what's good for the goose is good for the gander, and (2) the abortion industry has more money than we do because the pro-life movement is disproportionately young and low-income.

If the Johnson Amendment is repealed, Planned Parenthood (and organizations like it, but I'll use PP as an illustrative example) will no longer have to raise funds for political activity separately from its general "charitable" budget. That's critical, because according to Planned Parenthood's most recent annual report (p. 31), it has $634 million in unrestricted net assets. If it could tap into that tax-exempt money for campaigning? Thirty million dollars to Clinton might as well be nothing. Plus, they'll attract more wealthy political donors if those donors are able to deduct the contribution on their taxes.

And for what? Churches can already condemn abortion, and pro-life organizations are free to say who the pro-life candidate is. And, in fact, they can explicitly endorse political candidates—if they are willing to give up their tax exemption.

Freedom of speech doesn't mean freedom from the consequences of speech. It certainly doesn't mean that taxpayers should have to effectively subsidize your speech by giving you a tax exemption. You might recognize this as being very similar to the argument pro-lifers have made for decades: government funding of the abortion industry is wrong because it forces taxpayers to subsidize activity they consider morally abhorrent. Tax exemptions are less direct, but they're still a subsidy. Bad enough that Planned Parenthood can claim tax-exempt status for any part of its billion-dollar empire, but repeal of the Johnson Amendment would effectively give Planned Parenthood donors a tax break for funding attack ads on pro-life candidates!

Yes, the reverse is also true. But that just leads to a monetary arms race, and for the demographic reasons discussed at length here, I don't believe we would win it.

I'll close with a wise comment from Non-Profit Quarterly:
Allowing nonprofit organizations to join more openly into the political conversation is not inherently controversial. But allowing them to become fundraising engines for candidates and parties would change the philanthropic landscape and ultimately make it harder for the nonprofit sector fulfill its core purposes, which includes campaigning for social change.

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