The IRS has a tough job ahead. The agency is in the process of writing a rule that could clarify the definition of political activity for nonprofits, making it harder to game the system and push millions of undisclosed dollars into our elections while also making it easier for nonprofits to navigate and easier for the IRS to enforce the rules.
But now Republicans in the House are trying to delay the agency’s rulemaking until 2017, despite agreement across the political spectrum that the rules as they stand are so vague, they stifle speech and enable abusers to game the system.
If only there were something for the IRS to look to as an example of how important clear rules are. Perhaps a massive cultural event, the more widely known the better.
The answer stares us in the face.
They should look, of course, to the Super Bowl.
Even those whose primary interest in the Super Bowl is the associated food or the funny commercials had to take notice of football rules when the Patriots defeated the Colts in the AFC championship game. Never has a nation been so invested in the proper pounds per square inch rating for a professional football and the degree to which cold weather affects that rating. Never has Avogadro’s number become so intrinsic to high-level sports debate. Never has the fine for violating media availability rules been so exactingly avoided.
As the flap shows, when rules are precise, they’re easy to enforce and follow (when one decides to follow them). Take the rule on football inflation, for example, which dictates that footballs must be inflated to between 12.5 pounds PSI of pressure and 13.5 PSI. This objective standard makes it easy for referees to test whether a football is at regulation pressure.
Imagine if the NFL rule was “the ball should be inflated by the correct amount.” Not only would that leave players and coaches wondering what the correct inflation amount should be and coming to different conclusions about how much to inflate the ball, but it also would mean the referees wouldn’t know how to test the ball when they try to determine whether a team is cheating.
Nonprofits find themselves in precisely that situation when it comes to figuring out what constitutes political activity. With the IRS’ facts and circumstances test (whether an activity is political is based on all the “facts and circumstances” surrounding the case), nonprofits don’t know what counts as political activity in the eyes of the IRS and whether they are stepping out of bounds.
Without precise rules, how could football players know precisely how inflated a football should be, or exactly how long one must make oneself available for media day? How would referees ensure the game’s fairness if they didn’t know those rules? Such a lack of clarity wouldn’t work for sports, and it doesn’t work for nonprofits, either.
The Bright Lines Project’s plan lays out clear definitions and safe harbors, allowing nonprofits clear guidance on what they can and can’t do while making sure that the nonprofit “players” and the IRS “referees” are on the same page.
At a time when the IRS faces serious budget cuts and struggles to enforce the existing standards, an objective way to make sure nonprofits are following the law will help everyone. That’s why groups that don’t often share a stage — such as the evangelical Alliance Defending Freedom and Evangelical Council on Financial Accountability and the progressive Center for American Progress — are pushing for clear rules.
With clear rules, everybody can play the game, from the smallest team right up to the Patriots and Seahawks. And as the exciting game and Patriots win showed on Sunday, clear rules and good enforcement make for fair results even the most adorable puppy-motivated sports fan can appreciate.
Emily Peterson-Cassin is the project coordinator of the Bright Lines Project. Want More Stories Like This? Subscribe to our Thought Leaders Newsletter.