Political spending by tax-exempt groups has surged in recent years, most evident in the flood of television ads during presidential elections. The Center for Responsive Politics tracked more than $300 million in spending in 2012, up from about $5.8 million in 2004.
Such groups as Crossroads GPS, founded by Republican strategist Karl Rove, are supposed to be devoted to the promotion of “social welfare” to qualify for tax-exempt status. Instead, they spend heavily on political activity, directly advocating for and against parties and candidates.
Fortunately, new rules proposed by the Treasury Department and the Internal Revenue Service would bring a measure of clarity. Among other things, the rules would stop social-welfare organizations from airing ads that mention a candidate within 60 days of Election Day.
A broader time-frame would be better. Still, the proposed rules would force social-welfare organizations to either curtail their political activities to more reasonable levels or register as political organizations. The latter course would force disclosure of political donations, something not required under IRS rules.
Proposals still are being developed on how much political spending should be allowed. The current rule of thumb is less than 50 percent. The IRS should push for a far lower amount, returning social-welfare organizations to their original purpose. This is not about curtailing speech. It is about making groups whose primary purpose is winning elections follow the same rules as candidates, parties and political committees.