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That's why I find it so puzzling that no one is asking why partisan political groups are applying for non-profit status in the first place.

Because political groups are allowed to apply for non-profit status under 501(c)(4).

Well, anyone can apply. The question is whether they're qualified or not. Approval isn't supposed to be automatic.

Many political activities fall within the definition of social welfare - advocating for political outcomes, lobbying legislation, registering voters and increasing awareness of various issues. They're even allowed to engage in election-related activity up to a point. They're just not allowed to be primarily involved in election activity.

What tea party group is not primarily involved in election activity?

Anyway, that's not the rule. This is:

To qualify for exemption under section 501(c)(4), the organization's net earnings must be devoted only to charitable, educational, or recreational purposes. [I.e. it can't go to candidates or campaigns.]

And remember, this isn't about whether donations to c4's are tax deductible. They aren't. It's about whether the groups themselves pay tax on the donations.

More from Pub 557, specifically about political activity:

Promoting social welfare does not include direct or indirect participation or intervention in political campaigns on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office. However, if you submit proof that your organization is organized exclusively to promote social welfare, it can obtain exemption even if it participates legally in some political activity on behalf of or in opposition to candidates for public office.

The explicit purpose of the Tea Party is to directly participate in political campaigns and to oppose certain candidates, both Democrats and certain Republicans. The tea party is not organized exclusively to promote social welfare. It is organized primarily to organize for and against political candidates. The top story on its website today is headlined "Impeach Obama." If that's not political, nothing is.

The reason this is much ado about nothing is that even political organizations are entitled to the tax exemption these groups were seeking. In other words, they didn't even have to apply.

Generally, a political organization is treated as an organization exempt from tax. Certain political organizations, however, must file an annual income tax return, Form 1120-POL, for any year they have political organization taxable income in excess of the $100 specific deduction allowed under section 527.

No harm. None of these groups were deprived of anything. If they were "harassed," -- assuming being asked to prove you're not a political organization even though your name indicated you are one is harassment - it's because they applied for a tax exemption they neither needed nor qualified for. All they had to do is file a Form 1120-POL with their tax return.
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