History of the Bright Lines Project

Since November 2012, the Bright Lines Project (BLP) has been housed at Public Citizen. A new phase of the project, described below, was launched on May 23, 2013 with an opinion piece in the Washington Post during the heightened awareness of the IRS inappropriately scrutinizing certain applicants for tax exemption.

The Bright Lines Project, under a different name, was started by OMB Watch (now called Center for Effective Government) in 2008. Two issues motivated the project. First, although charities know they may not support or oppose candidates for public office, the scope of what charities are permitted to do when it comes to nonpartisan election-related activities has never been clear. This ambiguity chills civic engagement rather than encouraging charities to participate in nonpartisan voter activities, something for which OMB Watch and others have advocated. Second, observers on all sides of the political spectrum perceived IRS enforcement of the rules as inconsistent. Charities conducting similar activities, for example, are responded to differently from the IRS.

Both the lack of clear rules guiding charities and perceived disparities in enforcement are a result of the IRS’s decision to evaluate election-related activities by charities based a contextual review of the “facts and circumstances” rather than setting clear objective standards.

This project is rooted in the belief that clear definitions of what constitutes political intervention by tax exempt groups will help strengthen American democracy. Such clarity must be associated with a zone of free speech that is wide and deep and that affords opportunity for charities and other tax exempt groups to pursue issue advocacy. The operating assumption is that bright lines will help nonprofit leaders understand that participating in nonpartisan voter activities is permissible, and, like lobbying activities, morally essential to a robust democracy.

To move this effort forward, Greg Colvin of Adler & Colvin volunteered to chair a Drafting Committee to develop a comprehensive regulatory framework. Working with Colvin, OMB Watch created a Drafting Committee of nine nonprofit tax law experts with Beth Kingsley of Harmon Curran as vice chair.

Once news broke in May about the IRS using keyword searches of organization names to inappropriately target conservative groups applying for tax exemption, the inadequacy of the “facts and circumstances” approach and the need for clearer definitions of political intervention, exactly what the BLP had been working on for the past four years, became rapidly apparent. Gary Bass and Beth Kingsley wrote a commentary for the Chronicle of Philanthropy and followed it with the op-ed in the Washington Post, thereby launching the new implementation phase of the BLP at Public Citizen.