Advocates Cast Wary Eye on Lobby-Reform Measure
A lobbying-reform measure at issue in a House-Senate conference could restrict how education and child-welfare groups advocate for their causes and raise money.
And while many education groups are downplaying the potential effects of the measure, a leading opponent says it could shatter alliances such as the Committee for Education Funding, the umbrella lobbying group.
"We see it as part of a larger effort to stop advocacy by certain groups," said Gary D. Bass, the executive director of OMB Watch, a liberal watchdog group based in Washington. "We want to drive a stake through its heart."
The proposal, which is attached to the House version of a spending bill for the Department of the Treasury and other agencies, is a favorite of many House Republicans, who say it would end taxpayer subsidy of political advocacy.
"One large problem is groups using federal grants to cover routine costs, and therefore freeing up their own money to lobby," said Rep. Ernest Jim Istook, R-Okla., a co-sponsor of the measure.
The most contentious provision would bar nonprofit groups and companies that receive federal grants from spending more than 5 percent of nongrant funds on political advocacy.
It would not apply to for-profit companies that receive federal contracts, and would preserve the current ban against using federal funds for lobbying.
The proposal would also exempt governmental bodies that receive grants, a provision that officials of the National School Boards Association say would cover their organization, since it represents local governing bodies.
Taxes and Advocacy
Most education groups enjoy nonprofit status and the tax advantages that come with it. But their specific status, and the restrictions on lobbying that attach to their status, varies.
The teachers' unions, like other labor unions, have their own tax status, and the amount of lobbying they do is not restricted.
Some associations, such as the American Association of School Administrators, the National PTA, and the Council of Chief State School Officers, fall into a tax-code category under which people who make donations to them can receive a tax deduction. Such groups can spend only an "insignificant" amount of their revenues on lobbying activities.
Other education groups, such as the CEF and the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools, can spend as much money and effort as they want on lobbying, but donations to these groups are not tax-deductible.
Many school-advocacy groups in each category would be targeted by the measure, since they receive federal grants.
The AASA, for example, gets grants for aids education and a program for at-risk adolescents. The state chiefs' group also receives federal funds, such as the grant it used to compile the report on science and mathematics indicators that was released last week. (See story, page 10.)
Some education groups receive AmeriCorps national-service grants, including the Council of the Great City Schools and the Public Education Fund Network, an association of local groups that focuses on disadvantaged children.
Officials of several education groups said the proposal would not affect them because their lobbying expenses do not approach the 5 percent threshold.
"My understanding is that our external-affairs budget is so small compared to our total budget that we wouldn't be concerned," said Nicholas J. Penning, a policy specialist at the AASA.
However, he also noted the importance of that small slice of the pie. "Most associations are in Washington because we want to have some impact on what is going on, or we might as well be in Iowa," Mr. Penning said.
Mr. Bass of OMB Watch warned that the measure would broaden current definitions of lobbying to include state and local advocacy and media campaigns.
In addition, while the 5 percent threshold has been the target of most criticism because it dictates a group's use of private funds, the lobbying measure could have other, more indirect consequences.
If federal grantees closed in on the 5 percent limit, they could rethink the dues they pay to lobbying coalitions, such as the CEF. Indeed, the plan would bar federal grantees from joining forces to lobby with groups that spent more than 15 percent of their budgets on advocacy, even if those groups did not get federal funds.
Although the CEF's primary purpose is advocacy, its executive director, Edward R. Kealy, said that the group's expenses that would be counted under the proposal fall short of the 15 percent mark.
In any case, groups that often take the lead in lobbying efforts, like the CEF, would be tainted, said Joel Packer, a senior professional assistant for government relations at the National Education Association, which he said does not receive federal grants.
"I think if this law were passed, any of our formal coalition activities regarding lobbying would be terminated," said Arnold F. Fege, the director of governmental relations for the National PTA, which has received an environmental-education grant.
Moreover, the record-keeping that would be required to show that education groups did not exceed the advocacy-spending limits would be burdensome, he added.
And some say the specter of violating the rule could dampen enthusiasm for lobbying in more subtle ways.
"Our members are asking questions. That's where the chilling effect comes in," said Amanda Broun, the director of policy and programs for the Public Education Fund Network."If they're not sure, they'll take the hardest interpretation and not do things that are permissible."
Although she cited no examples from the education community, Kristy Khachigian, Mr. Istook's press secretary, charged that some non-profit groups "lobby government just to get more money from government rather than working on programs for kids."
"We're not forcing them to give up their [federal] money," she said. "All we're asking them to do is stop lobbying on federal subsidies."
Republicans say that some $39 billion in federal grants is awarded each year to advocacy groups from across the political spectrum. OMB Watch contends that the figure is closer to $23 billion.
It is unclear how the proposal will fare when members of the conference committee reconvene this week.
Democrats charge that the provisions are a heavy-handed effort to "defund the left" and have led a spirited campaign to kill them. Moreover, two GOP senators in the conference, Mark O. Hatfield of Oregon and James M. Jeffords of Vermont, oppose the plan.
"The chances are extremely slim that an agreement will be reached," said an aide to Mr. Jeffords.
Still, 61 House freshmen have signed a letter pledging to vote against the appropriations bill if it does not include the lobbying language. And the House leadership attached it to the bill in question because it also contains White House funding, and thus presumably would be difficult for President Clinton to veto.
The Senate bill contains a less far-reaching proposal, which would bar groups that do significant amounts of lobbying and have budgets of more than $10 million from receiving federal grants. This would affect primarily large trade associations and unions.