Finding the Right Path for the Johnson Amendment

A strong majority of Americans (78 percent) support nonprofits playing a bigger role in working alongside government to solve community problems. The public implicitly trusts charities to rise above politics and partisanship to create positive change in the lives of those that we serve. Unfortunately, recent policy proposals may undermine our sector’s ability to meet these expectations.

Independent Sector President and CEO Dan Cardinali issued a statement yesterday stating that President Donald Trump’s executive order, Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty, puts the nonprofit sector “on a fundamentally wrong path.”

The executive order appears to ease the IRS enforcement of the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits 501(c)(3)s from endorsing or opposing political candidates. Its vague language makes it unclear how the IRS may interpret or enforce the order. Although the executive order may not significantly change current law, it served as a clear signal that the Trump Administration is seeking to align with legislative efforts to substantively weaken the Johnson Amendment. President Trump signed the order at the same time that the House held a hearing on legislation to repeal the law.

These policy proposals make it more difficult for nonprofits to know when and how they can use their trusted voice and expertise to educate policymakers or the public on issues critical to their missions. They impose unwanted partisan pressure on charities, which may push nonprofit leaders to declare that the path to participate in public policy is too risky.

There is another way forward. Rather than tearing down the current law, Independent Sector proposes to improve it.

Over the past four years, we have worked in partnership with the Bright Lines Project to advocate for legislative and regulatory change that will clarify the rules governing nonprofit political activity. The idea is to create clear boundaries that reassure nonprofits there is a safe route to pursue their mission and represent their communities in the public policy process. We believe this approach will clear away the underbrush, remove the obstacles, and make an easier path for charities to fully participate in the public policy process as trusted representatives of their community.

Ultimately, President Trump, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-TX), and other Republican policymakers seek to accomplish the same goal. We hope they will abandon their current course and, instead, work in partnership with the sector to set us on the right path to more robust, nonpartisan engagement of the nonprofit sector in the public policy arena.

Allison Grayson is director of policy development and analysis at Independent Sector.

Types: Blog, Policy Update
Global Topics: Administration, Congress, IS Staff, Public Policy
Policy Issues: Lobbying & Political Activity, Political Activity Rules

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