Washington Snapshot - September 5, 2014

Congress IconFoundations to Senate: Vote on the America Gives More Act

Contact your Senators Today

Congress returned to D.C. this week, which means it’s time for a final push to get your Senators to take action on the America Gives More Act (H.R. 4719). After this week, your lawmakers will be in D.C. for merely two weeks in September!

As our readers know, the House passed the America Gives More Act with a strong bipartisan vote of 277 to 130 in July. Yet, the full Senate must vote on the bill before it can become law. The Act makes permanent three very important tax extenders — including the IRA charitable rollover — that have been proven to expand charitable giving. It also includes the private foundation excise tax simplification.

The message is simple: ask your Senators to urge Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to bring the America Gives More Act (H.R. 4719) to the Senate floor for a vote as soon as possible. Tell them: "Don't leave Washington in September until the Senate passes the America Gives More Act; our communities are counting on you."

To help you get your message across, the Council has revamped our “Activate in August” advocacy toolkit so you can “Speak out in September.” Ask your Senators to support the America Gives More Act today.

If you are a private foundation concerned about the legal advocacy rules, please feel free to contact the Council’s Senior Counsel and Vice President of Legal Affairs, Suzanne Friday.

Council: Time for Field to Unite Around America Gives More Act

The Council has been leading efforts among the foundation community to mobilize the sector in support of the America Gives More Act. President and CEO Vikki Spruill sent a letter to all Senators asking for their support.

Most recently, Spruill wrote an op-ed that appeared in the Chronicle of Philanthropy with a rallying cry for both Senators and charitable organizations alike: “The Senate has the opportunity to help get millions of dollars to communities in need, but only if it acts swiftly. That means nonprofits can’t hesitate—and need to jump in to advocate for legislation that can make a difference,” she emphasized.

Sector Leaders Continue to Speak Up

Tim Delaney, President and CEO of the National Council of Nonprofits, and Henry Berman, CEO of Exponent Philanthropy, co-authored an opinion piece in Huffington Post this week to unite the field around the America Gives More Act. “The America Gives More Act would implement several common-sense changes in tax law that many in the nonprofit and philanthropic communities have been seeking for too many years,” they say. Despite conventional wisdom that no policymaking will happen before the elections, Delaney and Berman believe that “[t]here is time to call on [lawmakers] to insist that the America Gives More Act is passed in September. September is key; conventional wisdom becomes reality once Senators go home to campaign.”

The New Hampshire Charitable Foundation and New Hampshire Center for Nonprofits are organizing a sign-on letter for New Hampshire Senators Kelly Ayotte (R) and Jeanne Shaheen (D), asking for their support for the Act. If you are located in New Hampshire, or have members or grantees who are, please consider signing

Meanwhile, foundation leaders across the country are contacting their Senators and publishing op-eds in local newspapers asking for support for the America Gives More Act. This week, we’re pleased to highlight an August 31st opinion piece by Diane Abraham, the President and CEO of the Oshkosh Area Community Foundation in Wisconsin.

Abraham shares a compelling example of community philanthropy at work, and the critical role of individual donors. She tells the story of a legacy donation from life-long Oshkosh residents the Tom and Penny Harenburg, which provides for free admission to the Menominee Park Zoo is free. Thanks to this gift, the number of annual visitors to the zoo has more than doubled. “That's a legacy worth celebrating!”, Abraham exclaims.

Congress IconNews from the Hill

Lame Duck Productivity Up in the Air

We’ve been emphasizing the short amount of time remaining before Congress leaves D.C. for midterm election season. However, when they return in November, how much are they likely to accomplish through the end of the year?

The answer to this question is very much contingent upon the election outcome, Roll Call reporters speculate. If Republicans win a majority in the Senate while maintaining a majority in the House, they will be motivated to wait until the next session of Congress in 2015 before taking any significant action. On the other hand, Democrats would be eager to push through legislative priorities before losing power in January, but would face the same roadblocks they do today with a different party controlling the House and Senate.

Yet, if the Senate does not vote on H.R. 4719 in September, there is still hope. The lame duck could “give new life to a host of stalled, fairly noncontroversial bills,” the authors state. On Wednesday, IRS Commissioner John Koskinen urged Congress to approve the package of tax extenders swiftly and with as few changes as possible. Too many changes to the expired provisions would overly complicate the processing of 2014 tax returns for the IRS, he said. The agency is bogged down with implementing Affordable Care Act changes that go into effect for the next tax season, while facing a tighter budget this year.

As always, we will keep you up to speed with the latest developments on the Hill, along with what we’re hearing about the lame duck agenda.

IRS Targeting Scandal Report

The congressional committees investigating the IRS for targeting certain tax-exempt organizations are beginning to release their comprehensive findings and recommendations on the controversy.

The Washington Post reports that last week, the Democratic members on the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, chaired by Senator Carl Levin (D-MI), found “no evidence of IRS political bias” in the agency’s oversight actions. However, the 228-page report did find that the methods used to scrutinize tax-exemption applications were not generally appropriate.

The report, which can be found here, also critiqued the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) report released last year for concluding only that the IRS paid extra attention to applications from conservative groups. This is not the case, the Subcommittee report states. The IRS also used search terms to hone in on left-leaning groups, such as those associated with the Occupy movement.

Republican Subcommittee members, led by Senator John McCain (R-AZ) took a different view of the findings. They determined that the TIGTA audit was correct in its finding that the vast majority of targeted groups were right-leaning.

We expect more reports from other congressional committees to be released in the coming months, and we will share these as we receive them.

Chairman Camp Pushes White House on Tax Reform

The Administration should release its own plan to overhaul the tax code, House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI-4) told Jason Furman, Chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisors.

As our readers know, Chairman Camp released a comprehensive tax reform plan back in February, the Tax Reform Act of 2014. While the Chairman’s plan has not advanced legislatively, he hopes it will spur both the Administration and future Congressional tax-writers to action.

“I could negotiate with myself. I don’t think it would get anywhere,” Chairman Camp said. Congressional Republicans have urged the Administration to present its ideas on tax reform, so that discussions can begin to take shape on how reform might look.

While it won’t happen tomorrow, both Senate and House leaders have a strong interest in advancing tax reform in the near future.

Congress Seeks to Avert Government Shutdown

Before they depart for their home districts at the end of the month, lawmakers must first vote on a government spending bill for the next fiscal year, which begins October 1st. Otherwise, government agencies and programs would not have funding starting October 1st, prompting another government shutdown like we experienced last fall.

POLITICO reports that with midterm elections right around the corner and both parties in a tight race for control of the Senate, the House and Senate both want to vote on a spending bill as quickly as possible so they can depart. The House released its proposed spending bill on Tuesday, and will likely vote on it next week. “This bill is free of controversial riders, maintains current levels, and does not seek to change existing federal policies,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY-5).

The bill, known as a continuing resolution because it would continue to fund the government at last year’s spending levels until December 11, includes an extension of the Export-Import Bank and funding for the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. It meets the requirements of the Budget Agreement signed by House and Senate leaders last December, which governed topline spending levels for fiscal years 2014 and 2015.

The Senate has just two weeks left to consider the House-passed bill and present its own version, before Congress must vote to keep the government operating past September 30th.

Estate Tax Bills in House and Senate

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) plans to introduce a bill to modify the estate tax—taxes paid on inherited wealth—to make it more progressive. His plan would raise the tax top rate to 55 percent (it is currently 40 percent), while lowering the exemption level to $3.5 million.

As we explained last month, momentum has also grown among House Republicans pushing for a vote this month on a bill that would eliminate the federal estate tax. The bill (H.R. 2429), introduced by Representative Kevin Brady (R-TX-8) in June of last year, is currently support by over a majority of the House.

While neither of these bills is likely to be taken up by the other chamber of Congress, we are covering them because of the impact these proposals could have on charitable estate gifts. Traditionally, the estate tax has served as an incentive to donate a significant portion of large inheritances for charitable purposes in order to avoid paying the estate tax. Eliminating the tax, raising the exemption, or lowering the rates could serve as a disincentive for many of the charitable gifts resulting from inheritances.

News IconPhilanthropy News and Op-Eds

Nonprofits, Foundations, and Transparency

The Center for Effective Philanthropy conducted a recent survey of the views of nonprofit and foundation leaders on the importance of foundation transparency. In Foundation Center’s Philanthropy News Digest, the survey authors report that 91 percent of the nonprofits they surveyed agreed that transparent foundations were more helpful grantors, while only 47 percent of the foundations responding agreed that their organizations could be more impactful if they were more transparent.

There could be a simple explanation for this discrepancy, however. Nonprofits and foundations may have different views of what transparency entails. Foundations may view transparency as simply making “processes and decisions that are relevant to nonprofits’ work” available. Yet, nonprofits sometimes view transparency as the information that is directly communicated to them by a foundation.

The authors imply that this could be resolved by better communication between nonprofits and their foundation grantors. As a nonprofit CEO told them, "I don't think there is intent to be less transparent, but often time foundations may assume we know things about their programs, opportunities and goals we don't really know."

Events IconEvents

NASCO Conference on October 6th

The National Association of Attorneys General/National Association of State Charity Officials' Annual Conference, “The Evolving Role of Charitable Regulation in the 21st Century,” will take place on October 6, 2014 at the Hyatt Regency Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

This year’s conference discussions will focus on how charitable regulation is evolving and adapting to the ever-changing nonprofit landscape. Topics will include emerging issues under UPMIFA, regulator-sector opportunities for collaboration in addressing disaster relief, examining the way charities are evaluated by watchdog agencies, and questioning whether charities are, in the traditional sense, still charitable.

You can register here.