The GOP's Odd War on Nonprofits

September 17, 1995|By SARA ENGRAM

Of all the battles on Capitol Hill these days, the most bizarre may be the House Republicans' effort to muzzle non-profit organizations.

Nonprofits -- especially the smaller groups that run services like soup kitchens or homeless shelters or outreach programs for AIDS prevention -- are exactly the kinds of groups Republicans ought to be shoring up. After all, in their zeal to cut government spending, advocates of smaller government are pointing to the non-profit sector as the best source for a social safety net.

Now it seems that while they want nonprofits to fill the gap in social services, they want them to shut up and do it quietly.

The tool is a broad-brush appropriations provision that puts strict limits on an organization's ability to communicate with government officials or to make any attempt to influence public opinion. Any nonprofit group receiving federal dollars, directly or indirectly, would be prohibited from spending more than 5 percent of its privately raised funds for such activities.

And this is a country built on free speech?

Nonprofits have long seen themselves as partners with government in tackling common problems. If this legislation is approved, government would, in effect, be nullifying that partnership.

It would be saying: You may have first-hand information about the causes of homelessness or the effectiveness of various crime-prevention strategies or what keeps teen-age girls from landing on the welfare rolls. But we don't want to hear from you.

Why this punitive approach? Have nonprofits been running amok over the legislative process? Certainly not the small, do-gooder groups that beg donations from the public, exist on shoe-string budgets and, in general, make neighborhoods and communities better places to live. The targets of this legislation may be the big, politically powerful groups like the American Association of Retired Persons, but the victims would be the little guys.

During this year's General Assembly session, the Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations, an umbrella group for nonprofits in the state, lobbied state legislators to persuade them to support legislation enabling nonprofits with only one employee to be able to purchase health insurance for that person under Maryland's small-group health-insurance reform.

If House Republicans have their way, even that effort would have been outlawed, since the association is the recipient of a federal grant to help train nonprofit groups to carry out AIDS-prevention programs.

Consider the irony that, in July, when hearings began on this issue, defense contractors -- who, of course, exist on billions of dollars in federal contracts -- were taking out full-page newspaper ads to influence congressional votes on weapons systems. Yet Congress is not attempting to regulate the ability of these giant corporations to influence the government.

What really galls nonprofits is that the abuses this legislation purports to curb are already illegal. Under current law, no nonprofit can use government funds for lobbying activity -- and no one has pointed to egregious violations of the law.

Sponsors of the legislation, including Maryland's own Rep. Robert Ehrlich, R-2nd, say that the federal funds free up other money for such purposes. In reality, government grants actually soak up private contributions to these agencies, since they often come with requirements that organizations supplement the grants.

Sure, non-profits ought to spend most of their time and effort tending to their business, not playing lobbyist on Capitol Hill or in Annapolis. But policy makers can learn a lot from nonprofits and their experiences. Shutting off their ability to influence public opinion -- or even to get publicity for their causes -- represents the mindless Big Government approach to public policy Republicans were supposed to rid us of.

Does it help anybody in Maryland to prevent nonprofit organizations from trying to persuade state government it should try to attract more nonprofit associations as part of its economic-development strategy?

Does it help anybody for the charitable and voluntary groups that would be affected by this legislation to spend their time filling out forms for Big Brother in Washington?

This country needs a healthy nonprofit sector. Aside from the good work these groups do, many of them depend on volunteers and encourage the kind of community participation that helps democracy thrive.

It seems so elementary: Nonprofit groups are part of the solution to this country's ills.

Why on earth should Congress treat them as part of the problem?

Sara Engram was editorial-page director of The Evening Sun.

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