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BORING FROM WITHIN
The Internal Revenue Service has announced that it is suspending rulings on requests for tax-exempt status by "public interest law firms and other organizations which litigate or support litigation for what they determine to be the public good." The IRS specifically mentioned groups concerned with protection of the consumer and preservation of the environment, and indicated it would distinguish between groups that are educational and those that litigate. In other words, a nonprofit organization that publicizes environmental problems would be eligible for tax-exempt status, but if it took polluters into court, it would not be.
Thus, the IRS proposal, if it is allowed to stand, would cripple anti-pollution efforts. Legal action costs money, and conservation groups depend on donations to underwrite those costs. But few big donors will be able to continue their contributions to environmental defense if they lose tax deductions hitherto allowed.
The IRS defended its proposal by saying it was unfair to have taxpayers subsidize, in effect, one side in a lawsuit, conveniently overlooking the fact that the defendants in such suits are already able to write off much of their legal costs under existing law. Moreover, as Russell E. Train, chairman of President Nixon's Council on Environmental Quality, points out, environmental suits are not ordinarily designed to bring financial gain to the plaintiff nor do they involve personal economic interests. And, Train adds, litigation by such groups is most important in reinforcing the laws protecting the environment and in identifying gaps in regulatory procedure, "as, for example, in our pesticide controls."
Train asked Commissioner Randolph W. Thrower of the IRS not to take the step against the public interest groups but his request was ignored. Senator Walter F. Mondale of Minnesota called the IRS action "outrageous and callous." He said, "What it does is completely discredit the system. Here we have conservative due-process technique—the very thing that makes our system—and it is denied these public interest groups when it becomes effective."
The tax people ought to reread President Nixon's speech to Congress last February, in which he called for "greater citizen involvement" in the "fight against pollution." As the President said then, "The tasks that need doing require money, resolve and ingenuity—and they are too big to be done by government alone."
Particularly so when one part of government is sabotaging the effort.