GOP Catch Phrase for the '90s: 'Defunding the Left'

April 23, 1995|By JEFF SHEAR

With its dark legacy of witch hunts and enemies lists, the Republican Party is once again collecting names. In a project coordinated by the office of House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas, conservatives are working hard to identify political advocacy organizations that get federal money. And they're obviously not gunning for their ideological brethren.

"Defunding the Left" is the catch-phrase for the campaign to stop the flow of federal funds to not-for-profit groups that are associated with liberal causes, and it has gained powerful new impetus through the GOP's takeover of the House. In its latest incarnation, the drive aims to disrupt the liberal infrastructure that supports the legacy of the New Deal. It differs from earlier efforts because it is more narrowly targeted and because the GOP controls Congress.

Conservatives say they are preparing to storm the ramparts of the "welfare-industrial complex" -- the "iron triangle" of federal departments and agencies, liberal advocacy groups and their allies in Congress. These organizations fuel the federal government's runaway spending, they say. Yanking them off the federal teat is fundamental to dismantling Big Washington, a key goal of the "Contract With America."

While leaders of liberal organizations that might end up on the GOP hit list say that they've been bracing for something like this, they've yet to discern any coordinated maneuvers by conservatives to go after them. They're wary, but like their Democratic allies on Capitol Hill, they're not privy to the machinations of the Republican leadership.

Though still in its formative phase, the "project," as it is sometimes referred to by those involved, will rely heavily on the House Appropriations Committee. Already, the panel has struck hard, pruning funds promised in the fiscal 1995 budget to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Legal Services Corp.

But these three targets are only a small part of a much larger effort run by Virginia Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and a top adviser to Mr. Armey. A variety of conservative think tanks, chief among them the Heritage Foundation, are helping to identify federally subsidized organizations that influence federal policies.

The office of House Speaker Newt Gingrich has been acting as the liaison between the GOP leadership and various House committees.

"We're looking at what is the appropriate role of government and the proper use of taxpayer dollars," a key leadership aide said.

Conservatives are forthright about their intentions. "We will hunt [these liberal groups] down one by one and extinguish their funding sources," Grover G. Norquist, a GOP strategist and a member of Mr. Gingrich's inner circle, said in an interview. "With control over Congress and the White House, it's all over. We will go back and sue people who broke the law, who were ripping off taxpayers to do political work. If Planned Parenthood is lobbying, taxpayers need to be reimbursed."

Scott Hodge, the Heritage Foundation's budget director, acknowledged participating in the project.

"I have heard about and have been indirectly a part of those efforts to identify the various channels in which traditionally liberal institutions are funded and to cut those pipelines," he said an interview.

On April 7, Republican Sen. Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming announced that he and his staff are investigating the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), which he said has 33 million members and receives about $100 million a year in federal grants. "I'm going through their books and their records," he told the Associated Press.

"The perception is that it's an unfair playing field," said Michael Franc, the Heritage Foundation's director of congressional relations. "Advocacy groups on the left dip deep into the federal till."

Stephen Moore, director of fiscal policy studies for the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank that has championed the idea of closing the federal spigot to advocacy groups on the left and right, said that his organization is trying to identify the "Terrible 10" of advocacy groups.

Among the advocacy groups singled out by conservatives so far: AARP; the AFL-CIO; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; the Association of Head Start Grantees; the Child Welfare League; the Children's Defense Fund; Families USA; the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc.; the National Council of La Raza; the National Council of Senior Citizens; and Planned Parenthood Federation of America Inc.

Thus far, the conservatives' tactics have been subtle, built on process: slash the staffs of congressional committees, cutting off the Democrats' knowledge base; eliminate funds for legislative service organizations, the Congressional Black Caucus and the Democratic Study Group chief among them; and attack the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the positive voice of the "welfare-industrial complex."

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