A Case Study of Legislation vs. Regulation: Defining Political Campaign Intervention Under Federal Tax Law

by Ellen P. Aprill

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Abstract

The rules that should govern political campaign intervention by social welfare organizations exempt from taxation under § 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code have been the subject of recent controversy. Long before all the attention, a group of dedicated and experienced experts on the topic, under the auspices of two wellknown nonprofit groups, undertook the task of clarifying the rules regarding tax-exempt political activity. In light of the issues becoming national news, the group, known as the Bright Lines Project, also converted the regulatory proposal into legislative language. These two versions of the same rules—as a set of regulations and as a set of statutes—provide a natural laboratory to compare the administrative law implications of choosing between legislation and regulation to establish a set of tax rules. This Article undertakes that examination. It concludes that, if revenue rulings interpreting regulations are afforded deference under Auer v. Robbins and Bowles v. Seminole Rock & Sand Co., promulgating the initial definition of political campaign intervention as a set of regulations may well give the Internal Revenue Service greater power to police political campaign intervention by exempt organizations than would the enactment of detailed legislation. It recommends, however, that broad statutory guidance, followed by regulations, and then by revenue rulings strike the best balance between democratic concerns and administrative flexibility.

A Case Study of Legislation vs. Regulation: Defining Political Campaign Intervention Under Federal Tax Law

by Ellen P. Aprill

Click here for a PDF file of this article

Abstract

The rules that should govern political campaign intervention by social welfare organizations exempt from taxation under § 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code have been the subject of recent controversy. Long before all the attention, a group of dedicated and experienced experts on the topic, under the auspices of two wellknown nonprofit groups, undertook the task of clarifying the rules regarding tax-exempt political activity. In light of the issues becoming national news, the group, known as the Bright Lines Project, also converted the regulatory proposal into legislative language. These two versions of the same rules—as a set of regulations and as a set of statutes—provide a natural laboratory to compare the administrative law implications of choosing between legislation and regulation to establish a set of tax rules. This Article undertakes that examination. It concludes that, if revenue rulings interpreting regulations are afforded deference under Auer v. Robbins and Bowles v. Seminole Rock & Sand Co., promulgating the initial definition of political campaign intervention as a set of regulations may well give the Internal Revenue Service greater power to police political campaign intervention by exempt organizations than would the enactment of detailed legislation. It recommends, however, that broad statutory guidance, followed by regulations, and then by revenue rulings strike the best balance between democratic concerns and administrative flexibility.