The Johnson Amendment Under GOP Plan

By: David Herzig

Back in May, I continued to track President Trump’s promise to end the Johnson Amendment.  At that time he promised during a National Prayer Breakfast that he would “get rid of and totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment and promised to issue an executive order (which he signed May 4).

But, a significant problem with legislating via Executive Order is that executives change and with the change so goes the Executive Orders.  What works much better is legislation. Enter, the Tax Cuts and Job Act, where there is a proposal to end the Johnson Amendment.

What is the Johnson Amendment? In 1954, without explanation, Lyndon Johnson  Continue reading “The Johnson Amendment Under GOP Plan”

Remedies and the Parsonage Allowance

By Sam Brunson

On Friday, the Western District of Wisconsin ruled (again) on the constitutionality of the section 107(2) rental allowance for “ministers of the gospel.”[fn1] The litigation between the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the IRS has been going on for a long time—I first blogged about it in 2013—so I’m not going to spend a lot of space here discussing the specifics of the case. If you want to look at what’s been going on, you can check out this post and the posts I’ve linked to in it.[fn2] Long story short, this is the second time the court has ruled the rental allowance is unconstitutional. The first time, the Seventh Circuit reversed on the grounds that the plaintiffs had never tried to claim a tax-free rental allowance, so they had no standing. This time, they did claim a refund, which the IRS refused, the court found standing, and, in a well-written and extremely persuasive opinion, it again found section 107(2) unconstitutional.

Although the court declared that section 107(2) violated the Establishment Clause, it didn’t order a remedy. The opinion explains that in the first round, all of the parties assumed that the only relief available was to declare the provision unconstitutional and enjoin its enforcement. This time, though, the Freedom From Religion Foundation suggests that there may be two other remedies available. The first is to refund a portion of plaintiffs’ taxes and order the IRS to “extend benefits under the statute to those excluded.” The second is to declare section 107(1) (that is, the in-kind provision of tax-free housing to “ministers of the gospel”) also unconstitutional. Continue reading “Remedies and the Parsonage Allowance”

IRS ‘Targeted’ Liberal Organizations and After All These Years TIGTA is Still Wrong

darts-2349444_1920By: Philip Hackney

The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) just issued a new report four years and five months after rebuking the IRS for using “inappropriate” criteria to select applications for tax exempt status for scrutiny. In the first report, TIGTA rebuked the IRS for pulling the applications of conservative leaning organizations for greater scrutiny.

This time it considers the fact that the IRS over a period of 10 years used liberal leaning names such as ACORN, Emerge, and Progressive as criteria for pulling applications for greater scrutiny. This resulted in the IRS applying greater scrutiny to these organizations. Some might say the IRS targeted these organizations. Those organizations appear to have faced long wait times as well, and sometimes some questions of limited merit.

I write this piece to make two points: (1) had this information been in the initial report, I don’t think we would have had the “scandal” that shook the IRS and the political world of the time; and (2) the TIGTA report built its primary claim on a garbled faux legal postulate. The original report did terrible damage to the IRS and individuals by failing on both of these fronts. Continue reading “IRS ‘Targeted’ Liberal Organizations and After All These Years TIGTA is Still Wrong”

The Real IRS Scandal

By: Leandra Lederman

It is well known that the IRS was accused in 2013 of targeting Tea Party and other conservative groups for delays in their 501(c)(4) applications for tax-exempt status. TIGTA’s May 2013 report (and Lois Lerner’s statements at an ABA Tax Section meeting a few days earlier) launched the controversy, which harmed the IRS and a number of its employees. (Cf. my earlier Surly post, “Don’t Impeach IRS Commissioner Koskinen.”)

In 2016, I published an article, “IRS Reform: Politics As Usual?,” analyzing the facts underlying these accusations and the law applicable to the IRS’s determination of tax-exempt status. I argued that the facts showed that the IRS was not motivated by partisan politics. Rather, what happened was that IRS employees included a keyword approach in its efforts to triage the large volume of applications for tax-exempt status it was receiving. Its “Be On the Lookout” (BOLO) list of words was designed to help it identify for further scrutiny those organizations that were engaged in more political activity than was permitted under section 501(c)(4), which, generally speaking gants exempt status to organizations “for the promotion of social welfare.” As I describe in that article, the IRS tried but failed to get ahead of a brewing political controversy on this. There was evidence even in the 2010 IRS PowerPoint highlighting types of groups applying for a determination of exempt status under 501(c)(4) that the IRS had both Tea Party and progressive political organizations on its radar. But the news was full of stories of the IRS supposedly targeting conservative tax-exempt organizations.

The Washington Post has reported in an article titled Liberal groups got IRS scrutiny, too, inspector general suggests, that TIGTA will be issuing a new report finding that the IRS also used keywords to try to identify progressive groups engaging in too much political activity to qualify for the tax exemption under 501(c)(4) they were applying Continue reading “The Real IRS Scandal”

FY 2018 Appropriations Bill and the IRS

Last Thursday, the House passed an appropriations bill by a vote of 211 to 198. At this point, it’s anybody’s guess how much of the appropriations bill will survive the Senate, but, just in case, it’s worth taking a look at it. And, it turns out, the House really wants to use the appropriations bill to regulate the IRS. Some of the provisions strike me as warranted. Some innocuous. Some strike me as bizarre, payback, perhaps, for long-held grudges. And some strike me as downright insidious. In this post I’m going to focus on the last two categories because frankly, they’re more fun to write about.

The provisions that regulate IRS behavior can be found in sections 101-116 of the appropriations bill. And what provisions are bizarre payback or downright insidious? Continue reading “FY 2018 Appropriations Bill and the IRS”

House Appropriations Bill

By: David Herzig

With all the diversions this week, it was easy to miss that the House Committee on Appropriations posted on June 28th the Appropriations Bill for FY 2018.  The bill seems to include a couple items that not many were expecting.  So, I thought I would highlight some of the key provisions.  Since it is Friday before a Holiday weekend, I’ll keep it short for now.  There are four main provisions I will address: (1) IRS Targeting/Johnson Amendment; (2) ACA Penalties; (3) Conservation Easements; and (4) 2704 (Estate/Gift Tax).

I. IRS Targeting/Death of Johnson Amendment

First, is a clear response to the “targeting” of groups from the Lois Lerner Administration. In three separate sections (107, 108 and 116), the bill attempts to regulate the IRS, not Continue reading “House Appropriations Bill”

About the ACLU’s [Update: FFRF’s] Challenge to the Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty EO

By Sam Brunson

Trump signed his Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty executive order earlier today. The EO was expected to order the IRS to stop enforcing the so-called Johnson Amendment against religious organizations. As Ben explained, by its language, it may have done significantly less—it appears to merely reaffirm the status quo for enforcement. Whatever its substantive effects, though, the existence of the order is no surprise, and, as has happened with any number of Trump’s previous EOs, the ACLU Freedom From Religion Foundation has already announced that it will challenge the EO in court. [Update: the ACLU looked at the EO and agreed with Ben that there was nothing there, and decided not to sue. The FFRF, otoh, decided to sue. So it’s the FFRF that will face these procedural hurdles before it has to face the substantive (or rather, lack of substance) ones.]

Leaving aside the question of whether this EO actually does anything substantive, it’s worth remembering that any judicial challenge to the executive order faces two significant hurdles: standing and administrative discretion.[fn1] It’s also possible that the Trump administration inadvertently made those hurdles easier to pass. Continue reading “About the ACLU’s [Update: FFRF’s] Challenge to the Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty EO”

Trump’s Johnson Amendment Executive Order Does Not Say What He Said it Said

By Benjamin Leff

Trump issued an Executive Order (EO) today, the text of which was a complete shock (at least to naive little me). I had written a thousand-word blog post based on reporting before the release of the EO that Trump would direct the Internal Revenue Service to “exercise maximum enforcement discretion to alleviate the burden of the Johnson amendment which prohibits religious leaders from speaking about politics and candidate from the pulpit[.]” Then I watched the whole signing ceremony and Trump confirmed that he was planning to clearly open the door for religious leaders to communicate their views on candidates from the pulpits of their houses of worship.

The pre-prepared post argued that the IRS should issue some guidance explaining how it would enforce the Johnson Amendment in light of the EO, especially (1) whether it would create a “safe harbor” only for the speech of the organization, or also for the organization’s money and (2) whether it would extend the “safe harbor” to all 501(c)(3) organizations, or just houses of worship. The general consensus among advocates of changing the Johnson Amendment is that any liberalization of the rule should apply equally to all 501(c)(3) organizations and that it should permit speech but not spending.

Then, after a couple of hours, the White House released the actual text of the Executive Order. Unless I’m blind, what it says is literally nothing like what the Trump Administration said it would say, and even less like what Trump said it said when he signed it in the Rose Garden ceremony just a few hours ago. Continue reading “Trump’s Johnson Amendment Executive Order Does Not Say What He Said it Said”

The Surly Subgroup Turns One!

Time flies when you’re having fun, I guess. Today is the one-year blogiversary of the Surly Subgroup. What started off as a group-blogging experiment hatched at last year’s Critical Tax Conference at Tulane Law School has provided quite a bit of entertainment for Surly bloggers and our guest bloggers, and hopefully for our readers as well.

It’s obviously been a big year on tax and other fronts. Since our inception, we’ve published 206 blog posts on a variety of topics. And we’ve drawn readers from 140 different countries.

Surly regulars and guest bloggers have covered various tax-related issues surrounding politics and the 2016 election—including disclosure of presidential tax returns, the Emoluments Clause, the Trump Foundation, and the Clinton Foundation. We’ve written about churches, 501(c)(3)s and the IRS treatment of non-profits. We’ve discussed the tax reform proposals of the 2016 presidential candidates and the #DBCFT. We’ve written several administrative law posts about Treasury Regulations and rulemaking.

Politics aside we’ve also covered other important issues in tax policy—including taxation and poverty, healthcare, tax policy and disabilities, tax compliance, and tax aspects of the Puerto Rico fiscal crisis. We’ve discussed several issues in international and cross-border taxes, touching on the EU state aid debate, the CCCTB, taxation and migration, the Panama Papers, tax leaks more generally, and tax evasion in China.

We hosted our first ever online Mini-Symposium on Tax Enforcement and Administration, which featured posts by ten different authors on a variety of tax administration topics. The Mini-Symposium was spearheaded by Leandra Lederman. Leandra had organized and moderated a discussion group on “The Future of Tax Administration and Enforcement” at the 2017 AALS Annual Meeting, and many of the discussion group participants contributed to the online symposium. We hope to organize future online symposia on other topics.

We’ve blogged about various conferences, workshops, and papers, both tax related and not-so-much tax related. We’ve also had lots of fun writing about taxes in popular culture – Surly bloggers and guest bloggers have written about the tax aspects of Pokémon Go, tax fiction, music-related tax issues (Jazz Fest! Prince! “Taxman”!), soccer players, dogs, Harry Potter fan fiction, Star Trek, and John Oliver. Surly bloggers even recorded a few tax podcasts!

In short, it’s been a busy year, and we’ve had a lot of fun with the Surly platform. We hope you have as well. Going forward, we’re going to keep the blog posts coming. We also hope to draw more regular and guest bloggers and to organize other online symposia.

Thanks for reading!

Satan, Tea Parties, and the IRS

By Sam Brunson

Did you hear that the IRS granted a Satanic cult tax-exempt status in ten days?!? Meanwhile, Tea Party groups’ exemption applications languished for months or even years?!?

I know, it sounds pure conspiracy theory: the IRS loves Satan and hates conservatives. But it’s true! Or, at least, kind of! But it needs to be contextualized, because comparing the exemption application of Reason Alliance, Ltd. (the putative Satanic cult) and Tea Party groups is inapposite.[fn1] Continue reading “Satan, Tea Parties, and the IRS”