Common Cause’s selective outrage

Sean Parnell Contributor
Font Size:

Self-styled government watchdog Common Cause has demanded the IRS investigate the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), claiming the group has engaged in lobbying, in violation of the laws governing 501(c)(3) organizations. The allegations are not only baseless, they expose Common Cause as an organization less interested in pushing for honest government than in pushing an ideological agenda.

ALEC is an organization composed of conservative state legislators. It brings members together mostly with businesses and conservative-oriented nonprofits to discuss public policy ideas.

Among other activities, ALEC makes public policy recommendations in the form of pieces of “model legislation,” which make it easier for state legislators (who often do not have their own staff) to take policy ideas back to their states and introduce them along with any modifications needed to suit local circumstances.

The crux of Common Cause’s claim is that developing “model legislation” is lobbying. As a 501(c)(3) organization, ALEC reports no lobbying expenses on its IRS return and is not permitted to have lobbying as a substantial portion of its activities. Based on this, Common Cause argues ALEC is violating the laws governing its tax status and filing false returns with the IRS.

But Common Cause’s argument simply doesn’t make sense. At the most basic level, Common Cause doesn’t understand that “model legislation” put together by a nonprofit organization, even with input from state legislators, is not real legislation. It’s simply a policy idea in a format that allows people to see, discuss and debate the intricacies of turning ideas into law. This does not meet the legal test for lobbying, which is what counts here.

But more important is the selective outrage Common Cause is displaying in attacking ALEC. “Model legislation” is developed by many groups across the political spectrum, including the Progressive States Network (PSN).

As the name suggests, PSN is a group formed around a specific ideological agenda favoring progressive or left-leaning causes. It brings together state legislators and unions along with left-leaning interest groups, making it in many ways a counterpart to the conservative ALEC. And like ALEC, PSN does not report any lobbying on its tax returns.

But the description PSN provides of its work is strikingly similar to what Common Cause alleges is so problematic about ALEC. Aside from the fact that PSN and ALEC have radically different views on what constitutes good public policy, and one gets most of its funding from businesses and right-leaning donors while the other gets most of its funding from unions and left-leaning donors, PSN and ALEC are virtually indistinguishable.

Yet Common Cause isn’t demanding that the IRS investigate PSN or revoke its tax status.

This transparent double standard is nothing new, of course. So-called “reform” groups have long obsessed about the ability of the business community and right-leaning interests to participate in the political process while their own left-leaning allies are given a free pass to engage in exactly the same behavior. In fact, spokespersons for Common Cause and the left-leaning website Think Progress have both made explicit that businesses should be treated different than left-leaning “public interest” groups and unions.

More troubling is the relatively new (or newly revived, at least) tactic of “reformers” demanding politically motivated investigations of their political opponents based on the flimsiest of pretexts. Recent months have seen demands from “reformers” that the IRS and Department of Justice launch criminal investigations of Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, Karl Rove, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Speaker John Boehner and others based on little more than conspiracy theories ginned up to score political points.

Americans rightly recoiled when they learned that President Nixon was using the IRS and Department of Justice to harass and intimidate opponents. It’s difficult to see the difference between what Nixon did and the politically motivated government investigations Common Cause and its allies are demanding now.

Sean Parnell is the president of the Center for Competitive Politics.

Sean Parnell