Did Gore Protect Bob Jones University?

Bill Bradley attacked Al Gore in the Feb. 21 Harlem debate for voting (five times!) “to preserve tax-exempt status for schools like Bob Jones that racially discriminate.” Gore answered:

First of all, this was a vote on quotas. I take it you’re not in favor of quotas. Bob Jones University lost its tax exemption under the law that I supported. They still do not have a tax exemption. So, that is a phony and scurrilous charge.

Then Gore changed the subject to Bradley’s alleged opposition to “extra affirmative action for black-owned radio stations.” This wasn’t especially comforting to Chatterbox, who favors denying tax-exempt status for schools like Bob Jones that racially discriminate, but gets uneasy whenever “affirmative action” takes the form of broadcast licenses passed out to enrich minority-owned enterprises. (Chatterbox looks forward to the day when broadcasters of all races get rich through ingenuity and perseverance rather than through elaborate manipulation of FCC rules.) Chatterbox wasn’t bothered–as questioner Karen Tumulty of Time seemed to be–that Bradley was delving “20 years back into the vice president’s record,” or that Bradley tagged Gore as a Bob Jones ally twice more before the debate ended. Chatterbox just wanted to know what these five fishy-sounding Gore votes were all about.

The Congressional Black Caucus, alas, was no help. An aide there recommended that Chatterbox contact “somebody who gives a shit about that now. Excuse my French.” (The Congressional Black Caucus supports Gore.)

The Gore campaign promised to get back to Chatterbox on this, but didn’t. (In fairness, this apparently was because it was too busy spinning the issue to larger national media outlets where reporters lack Chatterbox’s patience for ferreting out policy minutiae.)

The Bradley campaign, however, was most obliging. It forwarded a press release citing chapter and verse on the five votes and passed along the phone number of Jerome Kurtz, who was the IRS commissioner under Jimmy Carter when the issue first bubbled up. (Kurtz admitted that he has given money to Bradley, but said he hasn’t been active in the campaign and did not bring this issue to the Bradley campaign’s attention. To Chatterbox, he seemed objective and fair.)

Here is the gist:

Sometime in the early 1970s, in response to a class-action suit brought on behalf of black Mississippi schoolchildren excluded from the state’s segregated academies (“segs”), a federal judge ordered the IRS to stop granting tax exemptions to private schools that practiced de facto segregation. (The IRS was already denying tax exemptions to private schools that practiced de jure segregation, including Bob Jones University, which until 1971 had a formal policy excluding minorities and thereafter had a formal policy preventing interracial dating; but the segs tended to have bylaws stating they would not segregate, even though in practice they did.) After a few years of foot-dragging at the IRS, the agency eventually (Kurtz thinks it was 1978) proposed a regulation enforcing the court ruling. In effect, the proposed regulation defined for the purpose of tax exemption what a “segregated” school was.

Federal regulations are always made public in draft form so that citizens can make comments that the agency in question must then consider before issuing a final regulation. In this instance, Kurtz says, “We got lots and lots and lots of comments.” Among those who objected were archconservative Reps. John Ashbrook and Bob Dornan (both Republicans). They said that that the planned regulation would impose racial quotas on any private schools that wanted to remain tax exempt–an argument Gore repeated in this week’s Harlem debate–and, from 1979 through 1981, Ashbrook and Dornan managed to attach to successive appropriation bills language preventing the IRS regulation from taking effect. The issue came up in five House votes, and Gore voted with Ashbrook and Dornan every time.

We are left with two questions:

1.)Would the IRS rule have imposed racial quotas?

Only in the sense that affirmative action programs today routinely (and lawfully) impose informal and essentially benign quotas that Democrats like Al Gore (and Bill Bradley) refuse to call quotas. That is to say, the regulation imposed a “soft” quota: Schools that had a minority enrollment below 20 percent were obliged to explain to the IRS why this was so. [Correction, 3/1: Whoops, make that “below 20 percent of the proportion of minorities in the surrounding community.” This regulation was softer than Chatterbox initially thought!] If the school could cite any number of circumstances, including a paucity of minority children in the area or an academic program centered on some specialized subject matter, the IRS would let it keep its tax exemption.

Chatterbox calls this one for Bradley.

     2.) Did the IRS rule have anything to do with Bob Jones University?

Not really. The IRS continued to deny BJU a tax exemption during the years when the Ashbrook-Dornan amendments were in force, because regardless of Ashbrook-Dornan, the IRS was still free to enforce its pre-existing ban on de jure segregation. In 1983 the Supreme Court (deciding against both BJU and the Reagan administration) upheld the IRS’s denial of a tax exemption to BJU. Chatterbox calls this one for Gore. Overall, though, Chatterbox must say that Bradley’s use of this issue against Gore was pretty legitimate. Gore did vote five times for an appropriations rider sponsored by a couple of wing nuts that prevented the IRS from abiding by a very reasonable court desegregation order (except in Mississippi, where a federal court managed to step in and impose something very much like the proposed IRS rule in spite of Ashbrook-Dornan). The fact that these wing nuts repeatedly managed to get their appropriations rider passed doesn’t really let Gore off the hook. If you can’t make a stink about this in Harlem, where can you?