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

April 23, 1995|By JEFF SHEAR

Among approaches under consideration: applying the Freedom of Information Act to organizations that receive federal funds, which would give GOP strategists a powerful investigative tool, and requiring groups whose representatives testify at congressional hearings to divulge their funding sources. Though sounds innocent, this would allow Republicans to assemble a list of targets.

Privatization and block grants are other potential weapons in the GOP's arsenal. Privatization could be used to cut social advocacy groups out of the money loop by replacing them with for-profit contractors. Block grants to the states could be used to achieve the same end, in that they would bypass the federal departments and agencies that award funds to advocacy groups.

Even then, conservatives acknowledge, the winnowing won't be easy. "The tentacles of these liberal organizations are so deep and ubiquitous that there is no magic bullet," said Kate O'Beirne, the Heritage Foundation's vice president for government relations. "There's no set piece in what we're doing, we're covering the waterfront."

Conservatives maintain that liberal advocacy groups are illegally using federal funds to lobby. Now that Republicans control Congress and the federal purse strings, they have the opportunity to tie off these money connections -- "cleaning out the institution," as the Cato Institute's Mr. Moore put it.

While there are strict laws and accounting standards to prohibit federal funds from being used for political advocacy, conservatives argue that they aren't enforced.

"The law is most often honored in the breach," Ms. O'Beirne said.

"Publicly funded political advocates rarely find themselves debating anyone who's privately funded," she added. "They are all supported by tax dollars. If their ideas are so compelling, let them go out in the marketplace, as Heritage does, and see if the public agrees with them."

The battle may well turn on how scrupulous advocacy groups have been about staying in-bounds legally. "It's illegal to lobby with federal funds," said Gary D. Bass, the executive director of OMB Watch, a watchdog group founded as a response to the Reagan administration's efforts to defund the left. "The nonprofits wouldn't do it. There's real sensitivity on their part about what their funds are used for."

"I broke my pick on this issue," said Michael J. Horowitz, who led the Reagan administration's campaign to smash the "iron triangle" as the chief counsel at the Office of Management and Budget in 1981-1985.

The campaign was so controversial, he recalled, that then-Chief of Staff James A. Baker III confronted him in the halls of the Old Executive Office Building and said, "The leader of the free world has come to me and said that all he has been hearing is this business about A-122."

Mr. Baker was referring to a government-wide directive issued by OMB titled "Cost Principles for Non-Profit Organizations," which Mr. Horowitz had crafted to assail the triangle. In the process, he set off a rebellion.

Mr. Horowitz says today that the directive was aimed solely at curbing undue influence by government-subsidized organizations and was not an attempt to "defund the left," although that is how conservatives refer to it.

"It is illegal to cut funding for a program for ideological reasons," said Mr. Horowitz, who is now a senior fellow in the Washington office of the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank. "I find both the expression and the concept of defunding the left wholly appalling."

Controlling the appropriations process is the chief distinction between the 1980s version of "Defunding the Left" and its 1990s sequel. The ability to target a few key organizations is a political -- asset that conservatives hope will allow them to divide and conquer entrenched constituencies. An obscure and tedious process, appropriations move line by line, behind closed doors, mostly out of the eyes of the media and beyond the attention span of the public.

For the Republicans, the appropriations process has the additional advantage of complicating matters for the White House. The president can't put back into appropriations money that Congress has zeroed out. Even the line-item veto would be a futile tool because vetoing a zero still adds up to nothing.

Indeed, the line-item veto could just make matters worse for the White House. To kill the offending language in an appropriations bill, President Clinton might have to cancel a program he especially liked. That could be a formula for gridlock, with the president threatening to block favored GOP items to defend programs of his own. The horse-trading would be monumental and the public reaction predictable. In that sense, defunding the left could spell trouble for both parties.

Jeff Shear is a writer for the National Journal, from which this article was adapted.

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