For federal workers, charity begins on payday

June 08, 1995|By Sarah Lindenfeld | Sarah Lindenfeld,Contributing Writer

WASHINGTON -- The list of charities that federal employees can donate to via payroll deductions runs 21 pages. Rep. John L. Mica says it's now time to erase many of them from the list because they don't directly benefit the needy.

Mr. Mica, a Florida Republican who chairs a House subcommittee on civil service, said yesterday that he wants to return the charity payroll-deduction program -- what he terms a "mushrooming taxpayer-financed grab bag" -- to its original mission of 1961: to help charities that directly aid needy groups, such as sick children and the homeless.

Too many charities that benefit from the program, Mr. Mica said at a subcommittee hearing yesterday, are political advocacy groups.

"I want to make the [system] a genuine charity drive," he said. "Federal employees can return to supporting people who help other people -- not lawyers, lobbyists and propagandists."

The Office of Personnel Management, which oversees the program, estimates that the federal government pays about $22.1 million to administer it.

"Public resources are being expended to support collection of donations for these advocacy groups," Mr. Mica said. "Taxpayers now lack the option of not participating."

With the backing of the House leadership, Mr. Mica is preparing legislation that would remove hundreds of charities from the program.

Groups across the political spectrum -- from the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund to the Firearms Civil Rights Legal Defense Fund and the National Right to Life Education Trust -- could lose millions of dollars. Federal employees would not be able to deduct charitable donations from paychecks, and the charities would have to divert more money for fund-raising.

The charities are not sitting quietly. Yesterday, many of them spoke out against Mr. Mica's proposal.

Stephen F. Colton, coordinator for Support America!, a bipartisan group of national charities, said the legislation would "turn off" many federal employees from contributing at all. His group estimates that charities could lose more than $100 million within five years.

That sentiment has the ear of at least one member of Mr. Mica's subcommittee, Rep. Constance A. Morella, the Montgomery County Republican who represents some of Maryland's 300,000 federal workers.

" 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it' I think still has relevance," Mrs. Morella said at the hearing yesterday. "I see a very healthy and successful program. Administrative costs are low, and 100 percent go to charities of choice."

According to OPM, about 50 percent of federal employees donated $196 million to charities in 1993.

Lorraine A. Green, deputy director of OPM, disputed Mr. Mica's suggestion that removing some questionable charities from the program would produce significant savings.

"The cost of the campaign does not significantly differ if we have 1,000 charities or 100 charities," Ms. Green said at the hearing.

Support America! last weekend polled 800 federal employees about payroll deductions. About 66 percent said Congress should not limit the types of charities they can support. Nearly 39 percent said they would be less likely to contribute to the program if some charities were cut.

"Federal employees should be able to give money to whomever they want," said Susan Holliday, a spokeswoman for the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents 150,000 federal workers.

Sitting outside the Capitol building yesterday, Lorenzo Brave, a government electrician, agreed. Although he does not contribute the system, he said his wife, also a federal employee, does.

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