Tax Status of Debate Sponsor Under Fire
The Cleveland Plain
Washington -A nonpartisan reform group asked the Internal Revenue Service on Monday to end the tax exemption of the organization that runs presidential debates, contending it is effectively a wing of the nation's major political parties.
The complaint by the reform group, Open Debates, says the Commission on Presidential Debates poses "as a nonpartisan debate sponsor, to covertly execute the joint demands of the Republican and Democratic nominees concerning the presidential debates, and to shield the Republican and Democratic nominees from criticism."
Members of Open Debates include former GOP presidential candidate Alan Keyes; 1980 independent candidate John Anderson; Paul Weyrich, chairman of the Free Congress Foundation; and Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics.
The group's complaint says the official debate commission founded by former chairmen of the Republican and Democratic national committees shuts out independent and third-party candidates and stifles discourse by letting the major-party nominees dictate debate format and issues. It contends the commission is violating an IRS ban on partisan political activities and should be replaced by a more objective debate host.
The Commission on Presidential Debates sponsors debates between general-election candidates and has no role during primary contests. Commission Executive Director Janet Brown denied that candidates or political parties hold sway over her group, which is hosting four debates this year, including an Oct. 3 vice-presidential debate at Case Western Reserve University .
She called the charges by Open Debates "a huge misrepresentation of what the commission has done and continues to do on behalf of the public to bring about debates that offer insights into the candidates and the issues."
Brown said her group has developed objective criteria for debate inclusion that withstood repeated legal challenges by third-party candidates, and she noted that Ross Perot participated in 1992 debates that her commission organized. She said the candidates have no control over questions asked, although moderators at past "town hall" debates have screened public questions to avoid duplicates.
Spokesmen for both political parties denied the collusion charges.
"This may come as news to some people, but we are not responsible for the black helicopters and we do not control the weather," said Democratic National Committee spokesman Jano Cabrera.
To illustrate their point that the debate commission's participation requirements are unfair, backers of yesterday's complaint harked back to recent Democratic presidential primary debates conducted by news organizations. If the Commission on Presidential Debates' requirement that participants register 15 percent support in polls was applied to debates held before Iowa's caucuses, only Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt would have participated and the public wouldn't have heard from eventual winner John Kerry.
The reform group said it would prefer a system that allows candidates to participate in debates after the primaries if they score at least 5 percent in pre-debate polls or if a majority of people want to hear their views.
"The commission merely executes secret agreements drafted by the major party campaigns," said former Reform Party vice-presidential candidate Pat Choate.
An Internal Revenue Service spokesman declined comment on how the agency would handle the complaint. Open Debates executive director George Farah said he believes the IRS will act on the complaint, but if it doesn't, "we can and will take it to court."