Ehrlich's grant reform Muzzling nonprofits?: Groups see move in Congress as attempt to curb free speech.

November 27, 1995

WHAT REP. BOB EHRLICH refers to as "grant reform" looks like Big Brother with a vengeance to nonprofit organizations. The reform the Baltimore County Republican is working to enact would put limits on the ability of nonprofits to participate in debates on public policy. The initiative comes in response, he says, to abuses by activist groups that take government funds, then work to enact their own political agendas.

Mr. Ehrlich, one of the bright stars of the GOP freshman class, should be focusing on bigger issues. Instead, he seems intent on grabbing some publicity for his role as a sponsor of one of the most itinerant -- and controversial -- initiatives of this congressional session. It has been attached to numerous pieces of legislation and has managed to get through both houses in one form or another without becoming law.

The Baltimore County congressman seems genuinely enthusiastic about the public service he is rendering. We remain unconvinced he has uncovered a legitimate issue. We are also surprised a conservative would try to burden nonprofit groups with costly federal regulations.

Mr. Ehrlich points to HandsNet as a prime offender. HandsNet is a national online service giving human service groups a place on the Internet. Members, most of which are not government agencies, can post news, pass along fund-raising tips and otherwise share information. About 5 percent of the posted material consists of "Action Alerts," including requests to lobby Congress on certain issues. But action alerts come only from dues-paying members, not from HandsNet.

The congressman has called the group an abuser of federal funds because it recently received a $200,000 matching grant from the Commerce Department. The grant represents only 10 percent of the organization's $2 million budget. The bulk of its funding is evenly split between membership fees and grants from foundations, corporations and other private-sector sources. Accusing HandsNet of improperly lobbying Congress makes about as much sense as condemning the telephone company for letting recipients of federal funds use long distance lines to telephone their congressmen.

If HandsNet is the best case Mr. Ehrlich can make for "grant reform," he had better start searching for a more productive use of its time.

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