The Center for American Progress and the Abuse of 501(c)(3) Status

As part of its organizational bio, the Center for American Progress (CAP) describes itself thusly:

The Center for American Progress is an independent nonpartisan educational institute dedicated to improving the lives of Americans through progressive ideas and action. . . .

[. . .]

The Center for American Progress is an independent nonpartisan educational institute under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue code. Donations are tax-deductible. CAP does not support or oppose candidates or political parties.

(Emphasis in italics mine.) Via the Daily Caller, we have former ThinkProgress (which is part and parcel of CAP) blogger Zaid Jilani with the following about his time at ThinkProgress, which he compares to RT America:

When I started working at ThinkProgress at the Center for American Progress Action Fund in 2009, I did so because it was an awesome platform to do good journalism. I knew that I disagreed with CAP on a number of issues, and that I wouldn’t be allowed to write things too harshly critical of President Obama — which half of senior CAP staff had worked for or wanted to work for — or the Democratic Party, or CAP’s corporate sponsors in the “Business Alliance.”

One of the controversial topics that was very constrained in our writing at ThinkProgress in 2009 was Afghanistan. CAP had decided not to protest Obama’s surge, so most our writing on the topic was simply neutral — we weren’t supposed to take a strong stand. Given that I had just moved up from Georgia, and the American South has a much higher proportion of its population in the Armed Forces, I felt particularly strong that we should oppose the continuation of the war. The people who ran CAP didn’t really agree.

Flash forward a couple years, and the Democratic Party’s lawmakers in Congress were in open revolt over the Afghanistan policy. Our writing at ThinkProgress had opened up a lot on the issue, and I was writing really critical stuff. I worked with our art and design team at CAP to put together a chart showing that Obama’s supposed “withdrawal” plan from Afghanistan would leave more troops in the country than when he began his presidency.

The post was one of the most successful things I had ever written to that point. It was featured by MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell and the Congressional Progressive Caucus used it in their briefings to criticize Obama’s plan. I felt great — like I was actually doing the right thing about Afghanistan for once at an institution that had remained quiet or supportive of Obama’s policy there, which in my view was accomplishing little but more bloodshed.

But then phone calls from the White House started pouring in, berating my bosses for being critical of Obama on this policy. Obama’s advisor Ben Rhodes — speaking of a staffer who follows policy set by others for his career path — even made a post on the White House blog more or less attacking my chart by fudging the numbers and including both the Iraq and Afghan troop levels in a single chart to make it seem as if the surge never happened (the marvels of things you can do in Excel!).

Soon afterwards all of us ThinkProgress national security bloggers were called into a meeting with CAP senior staff and basically berated for opposing the Afghan war and creating daylight between us and Obama. It confused me a lot because on the one hand, CAP was advertising to donors that it opposed the Afghan war — in our “Progressive Party,” the annual fundraising party we do with both Big Name Progressive Donors and corporate lobbyists (in the same room!) we even advertised that we wanted to end the war in Afghanistan.

But what that meeting with CAP senior staff showed me was that they viewed being closer to Obama and aligning with his policy as more important than demonstrating progressive principle, if that meant breaking with Obama. Essentially, they were doing the same thing to us RT America is telling its American producers to do now — align with your boss, who is the president of the country.

So much then for CAP’s and ThinkProgress’s “independent nonpartisan” nature, and its “educational” mission. Jilani claims his post proves that in Washington, “we’re all a little like RT America.” He should speak for himself (and perhaps for CAP and ThinkProgress), and I have no doubt whatsoever that if a Republican administration had put the hammer down this way on a right-of-center think tank that dissented from the White House line, the traditional news media and left-of-center bloggers would have been all over it eons ago. I don’t imagine that Jilani’s post will receive the same wall-to-wall treatment from either the port  side blogosphere, or from traditional media, though I would love to be proven wrong.

Here is §501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, which states the following:

Political activity. If any of the activities (whether or not substantial) of your organization consist of participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office, your organization will not qualify for tax-exempt status under section 501(c)(3). Such participation or intervention includes the publishing or distributing of statements.

Whether your organization is participating or intervening, directly or indirectly, in any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office depends upon all of the facts and circumstances of each case. Certain voter education activities or public forums conducted in a nonpartisan manner may not be prohibited political activity under section 501(c)(3), while other so-called voter education activities may be prohibited.

Strictly speaking, ThinkProgress and CAP have not engaged in “political activity” in the sense of “intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office,” by disciplining its writers for dissenting from the White House line on Afghanistan. But at the very least, the spirit of the law is broken and given that it doesn’t take hindsight to have seen in 2011 that Barack Obama would run for re-election the next year, one could make the argument that by disciplining in-house writers and ordering them to support the Obama administration, ThinkProgress and CAP at least engaged in indirect “political activity.” Oh, I’m sure that no court will find as much, but Zilani’s disclosure shows that 501(c)(3) status should be dependent not only on refusing to intervene in political campaigns, but also on refusing to engage in in-house censorship at the behest of incumbent politicians–especially when the incumbent politician in question is the president of the United States.

In the meantime, we can safely conclude that ThinkProgress and CAP are filled not with righteous people in search of Truth, but party-line hacks, which allows us to take an appropriately dim view of the work product that ThinkProgress and CAP put out.

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