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Gag Rider

Congress' bid to muzzle non-profits

By Bruce Robinson

"This is evil." Karen Johnson is not one to mince words, and the specter of the federal Istook Amendment has the executive director of the Volunteer Center of Sonoma County alarmed in a big way. This bill, which has been proposed as a rider to various other legislative measures, including a lobbying reform bill under consideration by the House of Representatives this week, is a deceptively punitive effort that would bluntly curtail the First Amendment rights of any organization that receives federal money.

Under the guise of reining in the political lobbying activities of non-profits, a premise that on its face hardly ranks with the most pressing issues confronting Capitol Hill, the bill, introduced by Ernest Istook, R-Okla., bans awarding federal grants to any group that engages in "political advocacy," which it then defines so broadly as to include such basic activities as writing letters to local representatives or testifying about proposed legislation.

"We're starting to be told we can't have a voice," Johnson frets. "The best way to describe it is a gag rule." Not only does the Istook bill threaten to cut off funds for groups that dare voice an opinion on public policy questions, but it also extends its controls to the organization's entire budget, not just that portion made up of government money.

This last element may be the measure's Achilles' heel, as it is here that Istook would most egregiously trample the basic rights of the groups his bill would govern. "They can't regulate how you use private money," Johnson exclaims, adding that the entire amendment is overkill since federal law already prohibits the use of government grants for lobbying.

But the real agenda behind the bill is not reform, it is pure conservative ideology. "There is a group of people who want to close down the liberal agenda any way they can," Johnson continues, her momentum building. "There's no allowance for any diversity of belief structure in any of this amendment."

Typically, the devil is in the details. By applying the measure to any and all recipients of federal money, its provisions would extend to schools and universities, state and local governments, and any businesses that hold contracts with Washington, effectively blocking them all from input on matters of critical importance. Farmers who receive payments from any of a dozen farm support programs could not comment on agricultural policies. Even veterans' groups would be banned from employing the rights they fought to preserve.

Moreover, the text includes a budget-throttling Catch-22 clause, according to an analysis of the bill by Rep. David Skaggs, D-Colo., who notes that all national non-profits with annual budgets over $3 million "are prohibited from getting grants if they apply for grants: applying for a grant is defined to be a 'lobbying contact,' and any such organization having a single 'lobbying contact' is ineligible for any grant."

The reporting requirements, meanwhile, are clearly meant to impose a substantial administrative burden on organizations whose resources are already being stretched ever thinner. The result will be more staff time spent on federally required paperwork and less time available to pursue the goals that are central to the organization.

"They want a trail, so they know whom you have contacted," Johnson says grimly.

Perhaps worst of all, Istook has included language giving watchdog powers to any interested third party, giving anyone with an axe to grind "the right to file suit alleging violations of the restrictions on political advocacy," according to the analysis of the bill by Independent Sector, a support organization for non-profits in Washington.

This provision alone, they continue, "would expose federal grantees to a serious risk of legal harassment."

And consider who would be affected by all this: not just the scourge of the conservative right like the Environmental Defense Fund and Planned Parenthood, but such middle-of-the road do-gooders as the Red Cross, YMCAs, and the March of Dimes. Even the American Lung Association would be blocked from continuing its anti-smoking efforts, as that, too, would be considered advocacy.

Even without Istook's subtle legislative assault, non-profits across the country are hard-pressed to meet the real human needs in every community. Past experience with "trickle-down" economic theory has not borne out the contention that private charity increases to offset cutbacks in public support. But those cuts are clearly going to continue, and get worse.

As public monies dry up, "every 10 percent that is cut requires a 150 percent increase in local philanthropy," says Johnson, adding quietly, "I don't know that any community is going to be able to rise to the occasion."

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