Archive for December, 2013

Ho Ho House Gift Ban

Friday, December 20th, 2013 by James Cameron

THE HOUSE ETHICS COMMITTEE wants to ensure that holiday cheer doesn’t get to the heads of our nation’s representatives. On December 4th, it released a memo reminding members and staffers that the ban on gifts applies “at all times, even during the holiday season”. But the memo isn’t all rules and regulations: in a whimsical twist, the Committee included a lengthy holiday-themed poem. It won’t make current U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey worry for her job, but below are some of the better stanzas:

It’s the holiday season, so be of good cheer,
For soon there’ll be recess and very few here.
So let us remind you, as gifts come your way,
Please check with Ethics so you don’t go astray.

A government gift—state, local or fed?
You can accept it like the gift exception said.
The holiday gift from a foreign delegation?
If less than $350, cheers to international cooperation.

Got a gift not covered by the rules we’ve quoted?
Please call or write us, a waiver may be floated.
Getting married? A baby? On our Website you’ll find
A gift waiver form for your peace of mind.

For the whole poem, scroll to the bottom of the House memo.

As the poem points out, there are 23 exceptions to the House ban on gifts (and another 24 on the Senate side, equaling a whopping 47 exceptions).  So all is not lost for for lawmakers and staffers worried about accepting gifts, and, for that matter, lobbyists willing to give them.

New Regulations to Shake Up Nonprofit Advocacy

Monday, December 9th, 2013 by Geoffrey Lyons

IT HAS BEEN over half a century since restrictions on tax-exempt 501(c)4 organizations – defined broadly as civic leagues and groups whose primary function is to “promote social welfare” – were spelled out in detail. It was then, in 1959, that the IRS modified “social welfare” to exclude “direct or indirect participation or intervention in political campaigns.”  Since modern (c)4′s must play by the rules lest they relinquish their tax free privileges, it seems on the face of it that they would avoid meddling in politics.

But everyone knows this isn’t the case. Crossroads GPS, the (c)4 arm of Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, is a case in point. The conservative advocacy group spent over $213,000 on federal elections last year. How, one might ask, is that permissible? Check the fine print: According to the IRS, “an organization that primarily engages in activities that promote social welfare will be considered under the current regulations to be operating exclusively for the promotion of social welfare.” It’s easy to engage “exclusively” in something when the meaning of the word is watered down beyond recognition. According to the Washington Post, tax lawyers have taken all of this to mean that (c)4′s can keep their tax status as long as they spend at least 51 percent of their resources on social welfare.

Now, nearly 55 years since the issue was last dealt with in depth, the IRS is proposing clearer boundaries for political activities that should not be considered social welfare. An outline released just two weeks ago proposing the rules changes is considered by most experts to be a significant first step, signalling what’s likely to result in drastic revisions to current practice. Still, some are skeptical about the potential outcome, claiming that so-called “dark money” will simply filter out of (c)4′s and into other 501(c)s, such as (c)6′s. Others, mostly on the right, call the proposal a political move, the latest in an “unfortunate pattern” that began with the IRS’s targeting of conservative grassroots advocacy groups.  Whichever one’s take on the matter, (c)4′s are inevitably in for the makeover of a lifetime.

Food Fight: Major Crop Associations Divided Over Farm Bill Subsidies

Thursday, December 5th, 2013 by James Cameron

ONE MIGHT ASSUME that agricultural associations would find common cause in the passage of a new farm bill.  But as POLITICO reports, the most prominent cash crop growers—including those growing corn, soybeans, rice, and cotton—are butting heads over their share of limited subsidies, and it’s putting the new bill in peril.

Part of the reason for this is that there’s far less money to go around than in previous farm bills, and lobbyists for each crop are at each other’s throats over the limited funds. Further, as The Hill reports, both Democrats and Republicans on the House Agriculture Committee insist on basing subsidies on what farmers actually plant, rather than on historical crop yields.

Also contributing to the fractious (and possibly self-defeating) relationship between commodity interest groups is the fact that there isn’t a trade association with enough power to unite the warring factions.  Bob Stallman, President of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said that AFBF will “do what it can to help close ranks on any remaining issues – for the good of the whole of American agriculture,” but so far growers remain divided.

The good news?  For one, as The Hill notes, the farm bill won’t automatically die if a deal isn’t reached by the end of the year.  This leaves open the possibility that a deal is struck before Christmas, with a vote coming in January.  Indeed, Congress is under pressure to pass a new farm bill by 2014, when current subsidies for milk would expire, causing dairy prices to rise.

A lot is at stake for both agricultural associations and Congress in the weeks leading up to Christmas.  A deal may get done eventually, but it’s clear that the rival associations aren’t doing themselves any favors by remaining at odds.  Many swords must be turned to plowshares before there’s reconciliation in the farming community.