Department of Housing and Urban Development officials and elderly housing activists from B’nai B’rith meet to discuss the department’s planned radical restructuring of its low-income elderly housing program.
After a series of meetings, the Jewish activists succeed in persuading top HUD officials to scale back some of the proposed changes that were potentially most damaging to the program.
This advocacy effort is just one of thousands of meetings Jewish activists hold with federal officials each year on public policy matters of concern to the Jewish community.
But a congressional initiative, already adopted by the House of Representatives and expected to come before the Senate, will place the ability of not-for- profit activists to engage in public policy advocacy in jeopardy.
The House of Representatives passed a measure last month that would severely restrict organizations that receive any federal grant money from engaging in “political advocacy.” The bulk of groups receiving federal grants are in the not-for-profit sector.
The House measure defines advocacy as including mailings for grass-roots activity, providing information to the government, letters to elected officials, participating in court cases by filing friend-of-the-court briefs and joining coalitions.
The House measure limits organizations that receive federal money to spend no more than 5 percent of the first $20 million of their budgets on advocacy, and up to 1 percent of any portion of their budget that exceeds that figure.
Jewish community activists view the measure as designed to stifle advocacy and lobbying by nonprofits.
“This measure will have a chilling effect on the Jewish community and a devastating effect on B’nai B’rith because of the definition of advocacy,” said Reva Price, associate director of the B’nai B’rith Center for Public Policy, which runs more than 30 buildings under HUD’s elderly housing program.
Almost all Jewish federations across the country receive federal grant money in some form.
Although Jewish officials say no federation now spends more than 5 percent of their budgets on advocacy, the Council of Jewish Federations is studying what the impact would be on individual federations if the measure becomes law.
The measure “seeks to muzzle free speech and close channels between local groups and elected officials,” said Joel Carp of the Chicago Jewish Federation, one of the largest recipients of federal money in the Jewish community.
“They are talking about destroying the nonprofit community,” Carp said. “This is a disaster because it undermines the basic principles of democracy.”
In addition to the federations and B’nai B’rith, the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society, Jewish Vocational Service and Jewish Family Service millions of dollars each year in federal grants.
Proponents of the measure assert that nonprofits in effect use federal grant money to lobby the government. Nonprofits should choose between providing services and advocacy, they say.
Rep. David McIntosh (R-Ind.), one of the sponsors of the House measure, charged that tax dollars are “paying special interest lobbyists to walk the halls of Congress and executive branch agencies.”
McIntosh joined Reps, Ernest Istook (R-Okla.), and Robert Ehrlich (R-Md.) in introducing the measure to end what they termed “welfare for lobbyists.”
Jewish activists who depend on federal grant money to run certain programs argue that the measure amounts to an unconstitutional “gag rule.”
Current Internal Revenue Service regulations limit lobbying by nonprofits and forbid grant recipients from spending any federal money on lobbying.
These restrictions would be tightened further under the House measure, which expands the definition of lobbying to include almost all forms of advocacy.
Even federation-sponsored newspapers would fall under the definition of advocacy.
“I would not want to make the case that they weren’t,” Price said of Jewish newspapers affiliated with federations.
The measure also counts advocacy on the local and state level against the 5 percent an organization could spend.
The definition of political advocacy is so broad that it would limit what organizations do, said Diana Aviv, director of the Council of Jewish Federations Washington Action Office.
“There are may activities you won’t engage in because you may need part of the 5 percent later,” she said. “There will be no predictable pattern of how to engage our resources.”
Although no federations now spend 5 percent of their budgets on advocacy, Jewish officials will limit their advocacy for fear of reaching the limit, according to Aviv. “The effect cannot be underestimated,” she said.
Indicative of a deeply held view expressed by many Jewish activists, Aviv said, the measure to restrict advocacy by nonprofit agencies is motivated by “some in the Congress who believe the advocacy community is philosophically inconsistent with the new majority.”
“Nonprofits are the least powerful lobby in the United States. We don’t have the resources or the money. We are talking about the charitable sector. Why is this group being limited from the national debate?” Aviv said.
Supporters of the measure say federal grant recipients should not be doing any lobbying.
“Taxpayer-subsidized political advocacy represents pure fiscal folly and moral injustice,” Marshall Wittmann, a senior fellow for congressional affairs at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, wrote in a recent study on the issue. “There is no excuse for compelling John Q. Public to support political advocacy that he opposes. It is fiscally irresponsible and morally indefensible.”
Proponents of the measure also contend that even though grant money cannot be spent on lobbying, the federal dollars free other money for advocacy.
But Jewish groups vigorously disagree.
“The government does not fund any of these groups’ advocacy. It funds human services,” Carp said.
“How else will elected officials at all levels of government be able to get the input and information they often request and how else will the public be able to express its views,” he said.
Nonprofits from all walks of life are uniting to fight the measure if it comes up in the Senate, which may take up the issue after returning from summer recess this week.
“Our mission as a federation is about providing services to people in critical need,” Carp said. “There will be a huge fight in the Senate.”