Here's a pretty shocking fact: According to Bloomberg News, 40% of U.S. senators and 25% of U.S. representatives were in fraternities or sororities during college. Given that piece of information, it should come as no surprise that frats all over America, unified under a coalition called FratPAC, are trying to bait the government into passing a bill that would give a multi-million dollar tax break to many fraternities and sororities across America in order to help fix substandard living conditions and build further chapter houses. While this would help prevent dangerous outcomes such as a famous fire at a UNC fraternity house in 1996 that killed five, but granted that frats have such a strong connotation with partying, binge alcohol drinking, and unsafe hazing rituals, maybe it isn't right to give these groups such large breaks at the moment.
Pete Sessions (R-Texas), chairman of the House Rules Committee and official sponsor of the bill, has stated explicitly that the bill aims to improve housing for college students, "so that they avoid problems that we have seen across the country where there are electrical fires and substandard housing." But some contradictions have arisen regarding the actual usage of the money chapter houses usually receive through donations. Eve Riley, former chairwoman of the National Panhellenic Conference that represents 26 sororities has claimed, "They’re trying to get the houses up to code. It's not for building houses." Yet, the industry's 2011 lobbying guide said that the bill would probably increase gifts to fraternity foundations and help "leverage private funds" to build new housing.
Since 2005, when FratPAC was originally initiated, the committee has given around $818,000 in donations to political campaigns, mostly towards Republicans and particularly towards supporters of the tax break bill. While this doesn't necessarily constitute bribery, it shows FratPAC's insistence on gaining supporters through paying them off and giving them financial incentives. In one bizarre move, FratPAC was able to press U.S. Representative Frederica Wilson (D-Florida) into delaying an anti-hazing bill, and now Rep. Wilson even supports the tax initiative, all after being contacted by FratPAC. This kind of shady lobbying doesn't seem to warrant more donations, particularly given the "networking" that occurs in frats as alumni often give high-profile jobs (usually on Wall Street) to undergraduates in the same fraternities or sororities.
Under existing law, the IRS has made it clear that current donations to fraternities and sororities must be used "to build or improve" libraries or computer rooms inside fraternity house, but may not be used for "recreational areas" or sleeping space. The new bill would eliminate these restrictions and make it possible for frats to use donations and tax-deductible gifts to "provide, improve, operate or maintain" chapter housing. But the major concern here is what the money could actually go towards. Issues of drinking and drug abuse are very common at frats and since 2005, around 59 students have died, including 10 in 2012, in deaths involving fraternities, around half of them alcohol-related. While it cannot be proven that houses will use some (or even a majority) of their tax break money to pay for parties and substances, keg parties, especially those involving accidents, are notorious at frats.
Another major topic is the issue of hazing. In 2005, Matthew Carrington died after being forced to do pushups in raw sewage in a chapter house basement during a hazing ritual while brothers blasted him with cool air at California State in Chico. His death inspired "Matt's Law" in California, which penalizes frats greatly for hazing-related injuries and casualties. It's difficult to support institutions that require such absurd measures solely for a membership, and the risk of injury and even death is certainly too high to merit further funding.
As Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.), a Sigma Chi brother, announced at a FratPAC dinner in Washington on April 24 earlier this year amidst speeches about skills learned at fraternities, "We learned to tap a keg." While the issue of safety among frats and sorority houses still needs to be addressed somehow, allowing a tax break that would cost taxpayers $148 million over 10 years to these institutions seems like a risky measure given the recent history behind these famously controversial Greek houses.