Enemies of Friends of Abe
How the IRS chills freedom of association.
January 28, 2014
These days "IRS Targets Conservative Group" is a dog-bites-man story. But this one was man-bites-dog by virtue of its placement: on the front page of the New York Times, a newspaper that is usually supportive of this administration's efforts to suppress domestic dissent. Put it down to a sudden outbreak of news judgment.
The news value to the Times may lie more in the nature of the organization than its trouble with the IRS. "In a famously left-leaning Hollywood, where Democratic fund-raisers fill the social calendar, Friends of Abe stands out as a conservative group that bucks the prevailing political winds," reads the lead paragraph.
But Friends of Abe--as in Lincoln--has sought nonprofit status under Section 501(c)(3) of the U.S. Tax Code, which would allow it to collect tax-deductible contributions. The IRS has been reviewing the application for some two years, seeking information about meetings where politicians spoke. A 501(c)(3) is prohibited from engaging in campaign activity, such as hosting a fundraiser, but as the Times notes, "tax-exempt groups are permitted to invite candidates to speak at events."
The most troubling revelation in the Times account is that at one point the IRS "included a demand--which was not met--for enhanced access to the group's security-protected website, which would have revealed member names." The Times points out that FOA "keeps a low profile and fiercely protects its membership list, to avoid what it presumes would result in a sort of 21st-century blacklist" and that "tax experts said that an organization's membership list is information that would not typically be required."
With the possible exception of academia, show business is about as totalitarian a subculture as you will find in America. Conservatives are a tiny minority, and they fear for their livelihoods if exposed. A few high-profile celebrities are exceptions--the Times mentions Gary Sinise, Jon Voight, Kelsey Grammer and Lionel Chetwynd--but for lesser-known actors and people who work in off-camera jobs, confidentiality is crucial.
This column obtained a letter that Jeremey Boreing, FOA's executive director, sent members last week in response to the Times story. Its tone demonstrates how seriously the group takes its members' privacy:
At one point, as we were pushing to get the situation resolved, the IRS asked for access to those portions of our website that contain the names of our members. We refused to give them this access, and we will continue to refuse it.
At present, that is no longer one of the demands that they are making. . . .
We will not name names in Hollywood--not for the New York Times and not for the IRS. If the day should come that the IRS makes seeing the list an essential demand for our determination, we will simply remove our request for exemption and structure the organization in a different manner. This office will never reveal the names of our members, and we ask that none of our members reveal their fellows either.
We should note that, true to his word, Boreing names no names in the letter.
FOA members have good reason to fear being identified to the IRS. Last year the agency was revealed to have leaked confidential donor information about the National Organization for Marriage to the Human Rights Campaign, an antagonist in the debate over same-sex marriage. HRC promptly posted the purloined information online. LifeSiteNews.com reported in October that congressional investigators had identified the leaker, "but in an ironic twist, the Internal Revenue Service is forbidden from disclosing whether the employee has been prosecuted, fired, or even reprimanded."
The IRS's intrusive tactics thus have a chilling effect on people who wish to exercise their First Amendment right of free association without attracting public attention--or, more precisely, the attention of vicious ideological antagonists. Even calling attention to those tactics can compound the problem, as illustrated by FOA's need to reassure its members in the wake of the Times story. The gradual accretion of power by a vast administrative state, combined with an administration intolerant of dissent, has produced a clear and present danger to basic American freedoms.
A Simple Plan
"The advance word is that inequality is going to be the central theme in President Obama's State of the Union address on Tuesday," writes Dean Baker of the left-liberal Center for Economic and Policy Research in the Puffington Host. "The question is whether President Obama is prepared to talk about inequality in a way that gets to the core of the problem as opposed to just clipping away at the edges."
The answer is no, but we wondered if Baker would, so we read on.
Baker considers a few proposals designed to deal with the supposed problem of inequality. Raising the minimum wage? That idea is "great" but insufficient. He's half right about that.
"Universal pre-kindergarten" is "a proven winner in terms of benefits for children," but "it will not have a noticeable impact in this decade or possibly even the next." The latter point seems right, though it also seems to negate the former point.
As it turns out, "getting back to full employment really should be at the center of any inequality agenda." That should be easy! But how? Well, "if we were to eliminate the trade deficit completely," it would end up "getting us most of the way back to full employment." And how do we do that? He doesn't say, but avers that "it could move us toward balanced trade" if we "used a deal to negotiate a drop in the value of the dollar."
Would a big enough devaluation of the dollar wipe out any gains to workers of a higher minimum wage? Baker doesn't address this question, but it occurs to us that if income equality is really the goal, one way to achieve it would be to go all-out with devaluation and reduce the value of the dollar to zero. Then everyone's income would be equal, and for good measure you could raise taxes as high as you want without costing anyone a dime.