April 27, 2013; Star-Ledger

One of the more successful tactics of the coalition that is fighting President Obama’s proposed 28-percent cap on the deductibility of charitable donations is its domination of editorial and op-ed pages. Even though there hasn’t been a member of Congress with the political temerity to sound a peep of support for the President’s idea of capping charitable deductions, the charitable sector has opined and opined and largely set the frame of the public discussion of changing itemized deductions.

For example, in the Star-Ledger, Andy Germak, the executive director of the Institute for Families in New Jersey, writes that the president’s proposal reflects “some deep-rooted rationale behind the president’s desire to limit the flow of funds to American charities—which is what would most likely occur were his current budget to become law.” Germak calls the president’s proposal “a passed-through ‘tax’ on charities.”

Writing for the Savannah Morning News, Sarah Todd, the founder of Change Pioneers and a consultant at Calhoun Enterprises, called for lobbying against the President’s proposal “to help ensure we don’t lose this important foundation for the nonprofit sector’s services to the U.S.” Like many critics of the president’s proposal, her language conflates the president’s idea of a 28-percent deductibility cap (compared to 33, 35, or 39.6 percent) with the idea that the charitable deduction itself is in jeopardy.

The well-read online platform of the Huffington Post has made itself available to an array of op-eds attacking the president’s proposal:

  • Paul Clolery of the Non-Profit Times argued that, “Attacking and eliminating a tax break for charity now will rip the heart out of the sector.
  • Kevin Murphy, the president of the Berks County Community Foundation, wrote what seems to have been a prelude to his congressional testimony in February of this year, challenging the notion that the rich (or only the rich) benefit from the charitable deduction.
  • Heather Higgins, the president of the Randolph Foundation and former television co-host with Newt Gingrich of “The Progress Report,” described the proposal as President Obama’s version of Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day, but “even worse than previous iterations” and “déjà vu on steroids.”
  • Chief executive of the United Way Worldwide, Brian Gallagher, wrote that “any change to the federal tax code that undermines charitable giving is a bad idea” and “the Administration and Congress should be looking for ways to increase charitable donations.”

Op-ed voices supporting the President’s position on itemized deductions are difficult to spot. Aaron Dorfman, the CEO of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy also took to HuffPo to offer his opinion that “changes in the deductibility of charitable contributions like those President Obama has proposed on several occasions will have only a modest impact on the nonprofit sector.” His piece, however, was really a call for the nonprofit sector to get behind tax reform that would increase the tax rates on higher income taxpayers. “If the large trade associations don’t want revenue to come from a cap on deductions,” he wrote, “they would be wise to support the president’s call for higher tax rates on big earners.

We don’t mean to imply that the statements of Germak, Todd, Gallagher, Higgins, Murphy, and Clolery were all coordinated and placed by President Obama’s itemized deduction opponents. But the advocacy of the Charitable Giving Coalition and others has shaped the contours of the debate over the deductibility of the deduction. As a result of these and other op-eds, many people think that the President might be on atrack toward eliminating, not just reducing, the charitable deduction. Others think that the President’s proposal explicitly targets charitable giving, when in reality it covers all itemized deductions.

Regardless of what one thinks of the change in the deductibility of charitable deductions, there is no denying that the coalitions have steered the public dialogue into a direction where few people—and apparently no one in Congress—want to see the charitable deduction go.—Rick Cohen