Yesterday, Pennsylvania Republican state representative Daryl Metcalfe, chairman of Pennsylvania house’s State Government Committee, scheduled a hearing to evaluate the tax status of certain “politically active” nonprofit groups, and scrutinize Pennsylvania’s related state-level enforcement efforts.
In light of the current IRS scandal, one would expect Republicans to avoid appearing to target nonprofit public-policy organizations for extra government scrutiny. Not Representative Metcalfe, who seems to be focusing on one liberal 501(c)(4) in particular, Pennsylvanians for Accountability. The group recently ran issue ads criticizing Republican governor Tom Corbett, and they apparently also ran ads during the 2012 election cycle.
Despite claims that he is not singling out Pennsylvanians for Accountability, Representative Metcalfe publicly worries that the group is too political. However, the facts tell a different story:
But it’s not entirely clear Pennsylvanians for Accountability is operating outside the law.
The state law concerning political advertisements by individuals or groups that are not registered as political action committees is clear. It reads that any person “who makes independent expenditures expressly advocating the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate” must disclose financial information.
But Pennsylvanians for Accountability did not specifically use words such as “vote against” or “defeat” in their ads targeting House Republicans last year. The same is true of their current ads attacking Corbett for giving corporate tax breaks while supposedly cutting education funding.
“Anything short of that and you can make a case that it is issue advocacy,” said Ron Ruman, spokesman for the state Department of State. Nonprofits registered with the department are allowed to spend on advertisements for issue advocacy without disclosing donors.
Metcalfe’s hearing seems designed to send the message that certain issue-based groups, especially those who oppose decisions by Governor Corbett or his allies, will face retaliation, if not investigations or enforcement actions.
It is sad to see Pennsylvania Republicans following the lead of their Republican colleagues in Texas in thumbing their nose at the First Amendment. They should be thankful that the First Amendment allows people and organizations to collaborate and express their opinions in ways that shield them from retaliation or harassment. Instead, they seem hellbent on maximizing the advantages of incumbency, by using government’s enforcement apparatus to target their political opponents. I’m reminded of this scene from Blazing Saddles. I hope they will forgive me for not offering up a harrumph: