January 18, 1996
By Marshall Wittmann and Charles P. Griffin
Washington loves to wring its hands over a complex problem few
people understand, enact reforms that don't really solve it, and
then crow about having made the world a better place when election
time rolls around. This is exactly what will happen as a result of
a "reform" enacted last year ostensibly to end taxpayer-subsidized
lobbying and political activity.
The problem, in a nutshell, is this: There are many
special-interest lobbying groups that get much of their funding
from you, the taxpayer. Instead of finding out whether you agree
with their cause and asking for a contribution, these groups take
the lucrative shortcut of going to Congress. They convince
lawmakers to grant large sums to certain programs and then sign up
to receive funding through those same programs. In effect, they've
found a way to get your money whether you agree with their cause or
It's easy to muddy debate over such a problem with dire
predictions of suffering and mayhem if this or that group is no
longer able to raid the public trough. So, the public is rarely
permitted to see the real issue clearly. But this time around, the
debate became clear enough that even lawmakers -- and lobbyists --
worried about a backlash. They enacted a reform that seemed to do
something about taxpayer-funded lobbying. Only problem is, they
left open a loophole wide enough to drive a busful of lobbyists
Under the new law, big lobbying groups like the National Council
of Senior Citizens (NCSC) and the American Association of Retired
Persons (AARP), known by their tax-code designation of 501(c)4, may
no longer receive federal grants or contracts, since the Internal
Revenue Code states that these groups may engage in an unlimited
amount of lobbying. Both the NCSC and AARP currently benefit from
$70 million to $80 million in taxpayers' money each year, amounting
to 96 percent and 20 percent of their budgets, respectively.
But the measure doesn't prevent these groups from simply forming
501(c)3 charitable organizations which can accept federal money. In
fact, both the AARP and NCSC already have such affiliated groups.
No wonder the defenders of welfare for lobbyists launched no
opposition to the new lobbying reform provision. They understood it
was not a threat.
Unfortunately, this isn't the only problem with the new law. For
example, the reform focused solely on 501(c)4 lobbying groups,
while ignoring labor unions and other big taxpayer- funded groups
such as Planned Parenthood, which represent a significant share of
the existing abuse. The simple fact is that no special-interest
group that engages in lobbying or political activity should be
subsidized by the taxpayers. The question isn't whether or not the
causes these groups espouse are just, or whether or not you agree
with them. The question is whether all Americans should be forced
to pay for them, whether they want to or not.
This isn't a liberal vs. conservative issue. The American people
are a diverse population with differing political views. To force
hard-working taxpayers to contribute to political causes they may
abhor is wrong. It is just as bad to fund the NCSC, the AFL-CIO, or
Planned Parenthood -- three major offenders -- as it would be to
send grants to the National Rifle Association or Christian
The new year brings new opportunities for Congress to end these
abuses. For example, the appropriations committees should examine
programs like the Labor Department's Senior Community Service
Employment Program (SCSEP) that serve as slush funds for lobbyists.
The SCSEP provides $320 million (out of a $400 million allotment)
to just nine lobbying groups like NCSC and AARP to subsidize their
Congress should compel witnesses testifying before congressional
committees to divulge any federal funding they receive. In
addition, Rep. David McIntosh, R-Ind., has suggested a "Let America
Know Amendment" that would force taxpayer-subsidized groups to
disclose the extent of their political advocacy. Both of these
reforms would go a long way toward increasing awareness of this
vitally important issue.
But most important, Congress should close off any and all
avenues and loopholes by which lobbying groups can receive taxpayer
funding. This should be high on the list of unfinished business
Note: Marshall Wittmann is former director of congressional
relations and Charles P. Griffin is former deputy director of the
Government Integrity Project at The
Heritage Foundation, Washington, D.C.
ED011896b: Special Interests Still Get Your Money
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Charles P. Griffin
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