June 23, 2014
As federal agencies have grown in size and scope, they have increasingly viewed their regulatory functions as powers to reward or punish citizens and groups. The Internal Revenue Service offers another good example. Like the patent office, it was created for a relatively narrow function: tax collection. Yet the agency also determines which groups don’t have to pay taxes. Historically, the IRS adopted a neutral rule that avoided not-for-profit determinations based on the content of organizations’ beliefs and practices. Then, in 1970, came the Bob Jones University case. The IRS withdrew the tax-exempt status from the religious institution because of its rule against interracial dating on campus. The Supreme Court affirmed in 1983 that the IRS could yank tax exemption whenever it decided that an organization is behaving “contrary to established public policy” — whatever that public policy may be. Bob Jones had to choose between financial ruin and conforming its religious practices. It did the latter. . . .
When agencies engage in content-based speech regulation, it’s more than the usual issue of “mission creep.” As I’ve written before in these pages, agencies now represent something like a fourth branch in our government — an array of departments and offices that exercise responsibilities once dedicated exclusively to the judicial and legislative branches. Insulated from participatory politics and accountability, these agencies can shape political and social decision-making. To paraphrase Clausewitz, water, taxes and even trademarks appear to have become the continuation of politics by other means.
What is needed is a new law returning these agencies to their core regulatory responsibilities and requiring speech neutrality in enforcement. We do not need faceless federal officials to become arbiters of our social controversies. There are valid objections to the Redskins name, but it is a public controversy that demands a public resolution, not a bureaucratic one.
They do this because they are not afraid. I’m not sure a “new law” will do that, unless it provides for painful consequences to identifiable federal officials, consequences that make them afraid to abuse their powrs.