January 18, 1996
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 not.
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 through.
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 Coalition.
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 operations.
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 this year.
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.