House GOP Leadership Propels Efforts To Repeal Johnson Amendment

Republican leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives is continuing to push legislative efforts to undermine the Johnson Amendment, the 63-year-old provision of the tax code that protects the integrity of nonprofit organizations, including houses of worship, by ensuring that they don’t endorse or oppose political candidates.

When the House GOP presented its tax package, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (H.R. 1), on Nov. 2, the more than 400-page bill included language that would exempt houses of worship – but not secular nonprofits – from the Johnson Amendment. Houses of worship could endorse candidates as long as the endorsements occurred in the ordinary course of carrying out their tax-exempt purpose and didn’t incur more than minor expenses.

Although Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) offered an amendment that would strip this harmful language from the tax bill, the House Ways and Means Committee rejected Lewis’ amendment in a 23-16, party-line vote.

Not only did the committee refuse to cut the threatening language from the bill, but on Nov. 9 the committee expanded the attack on the Johnson Amendment: The committee’s chairman, U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), offered an amendment that allows all tax-exempt nonprofit organizations – not just houses of worship – to endorse or oppose candidates.

The Ways and Means Committee approved the tax bill with Brady’s harmful amendment in a 24-16, party-line vote. As this issue of Church & State went to press, the full House voted 227-205 in favor of the tax bill.

“The House Republican leadership simply doesn’t get it,” said Maggie Garrett, legislative director for Americans United. “Their efforts to ‘fix’ a non-existent problem are only making things worse. They want to turn tax-exempt organizations into political campaign tools, which will threaten the integrity of our nonprofits and houses of worship, as well as our elections.”

Garrett noted that that the majority of American voters support the Johnson Amendment, as do thousands of faith leaders and nonprofit organizations.

Additionally, the congressional Joint Committee on Taxation estimated the change to the Johnson Amendment could cost U.S. taxpayers nearly $1 billion over five years as political campaign donors shift donations to tax-exempt nonprofits to take advantage of tax deductions that donors currently don’t get, reported USA Today.

The initial version of the Senate’s tax-reform bill, also introduced on Nov. 9, did not include any provisions that undermine the Johnson Amendment. The Senate tax bill was about to be reviewed by the Senate Finance Committee at press time.

Political observers said there are significant differences between the House and Senate versions of the tax bills, leading to questions as to whether the two chambers will be able to reach a compromise.

“Yawning divisions have emerged between the House, Senate and White House over tax reform, raising doubts about whether Republicans will be able to achieve their most important political and policy priority before the end of the year,” Politico wrote.