Non-Profit Groups Fear Istook Amendment Proposal To Restrict ‘Political Activity’ Called Too Broad, ‘A Gag Order’
A proposal to cut off federal funds to non-profit groups that get involved in politics could break up coalitions to build low-income housing, teach homeless children and feed the hungry, representatives of Spokane charities said Wednesday.
Some 20 representatives of local non-profit organizations criticized a proposal by House Republicans that sharply restricts non-profit organizations from engaging in “political activity” if they receive federal funds.
The definition of political activity is so broad, argued Jim Bamberger of Spokane Legal Services, that it could include suggesting changes in a government program or publishing a church newsletter.
“It is a gag order,” Bamberger said.
The amendment, named for Rep. Ernest Istook Jr., R-Okla., is part of a spending bill Congress is considering. It passed in the House, but was defeated once in the Senate.
A spokesman for Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Wash., said the proposal is designed to prohibit “welfare” for lobbyists.
“It’s about taxpayers’ money being used to lobby Congress,” said Ken Lisaius. Nethercutt “thinks it will save the taxpayers over $40 billion a year that is going to groups that lobby the government.”
Bamberger and other representatives of Spokane non-profit organizations said using federal money to lobby already is illegal. They can only use money from other sources for lobbying expenses.
The Istook amendment says a non-profit organization may use no more than 5 percent of its nonfederal money for “political activity.” If it does, the group cannot receive federal money.
“What’s the difference from using federal money or private money?” Lisaius asked. The federal money being spent on programs was “freeing up” the private money for lobbying, he said.
Leaders of charitable groups also pointed out that the Istook amendment covers everything from attempts to influence a government decision to printing newsletters and leaflets to joining a court suit.
Lisaius said he didn’t believe the prohibitions were as broad as the charities fear. He contends the law would allow groups to advocate for its own causes, just not get involved in campaigns for or against candidates, or for or against ballot measures.
“If it’s a true non-profit not receiving money from the federal government, it will not impact them at all,” Lisaius said.
Don Kaufman of Big Brothers and Sisters of Spokane disagreed. His organization receives no federal money, but would be forced to break off cooperative programs it has with groups that do, such as the Salvation Army and the Boy Scouts, he said.
The reason is that Big Brothers and Sisters operates a Bingo Parlor. Because of that, Kaufman and other officials spend a significant amount of time and money to discuss changes in gambling regulations with the state Legislature and the Gambling Commission. Under the amendment, that would be considered political activity, and other non-profits could not work with his organization.
“I’d be a little island out there,” Kaufman said. “What are non-profit (organizations) if not advocates?”
The Rev. Monica Boyd Corsaro of Audubon Methodist Church said her church also does not receive federal money. But it is involved with programs with groups such as the Food Bank and Habitat for Humanity that do receive federal funds.
If the church takes stands on any political issue, it would have to break off those relationships, Boyd Cosaro said.
“We are very concerned about what this is doing for family values in Spokane,” she said.