Current attacks on free speech via threats to the non-profit status of dissenting institutions are not limited to harassing war opponents who deliver fiery sermons.
Writing in The Nonprofit Quarterly, Rick Cohen unpacks the complicated story of how rightwing House Republicans managed to attach language to a housing trust fund bill that will bar nonprofit housing developers from encouraging nonpartisan voter registration activities or working with other agencies that do civic engagement and advocacy -- even if the housing nonprofits use only privately raised, non-federal funds for their advocacy activities. The newly prohibited advocacy work is all completely legal nonprofit activity under the Internal Revenue code. But free market wingnuts are working to change that.
Cohen enumerates lessons that nonprofits have to take to heart if they are to survive the Republican reign of greed:
- Right wingers will use nonprofits' need to force them to accept unacceptable restrictions. "Even conservatives who not only had no interest in [the housing] fund but actually opposed it… were willing to vote for it if it impaled nonprofit advocacy rights as part of the bargain."
- Republicans are willing stick these poison pill requirements on any legislation, however important to real people; in this case, they've hooked it on Katrina relief. "There is virtually no federal program that is so important to the right wing (except perhaps the Administration's faith-based initiative) that they won't sacrifice and skewer it if it can score a point to advance their odd ideological agenda."
- Nonprofits can't cede a few rights at the margin in the hope that the assault on their activities will be limited. In the housing bill "options arose for technical solutions, like exempting nonprofits that are required to engage in voter registration through state “motor voter” and other laws, or exempting groups that do voter registration among the disabled, one of the least registered population groups in the nation. All that does is peel off groups that might believe--mistakenly--that their concerns or stake have been addressed or solved….To fight these attacks, advocates have to see the issues and implications in their fullest breadth, not their narrowest possible technical grounds."
- These attacks on nonprofits are about scaring them into pulling back from their missions, not just some technical regulations. "With the enactment of the law, nonprofits interested in building or rehabilitating affordable housing would not only look at the law and avoid the kinds of activities outlined as prohibitions against trust fund participation, they would likely go further. Given the possible latitudes of interpretation, nonprofits wary of running afoul of the program auditors would probably avoid activities and projects that might trigger problems."
- Advocacy restrictions ultimately aim to put nonprofit housing developers out of business, leaving housing to for-profit builders. Private developers influence politicians with campaign contributions; nonprofits can only show their clout by mobilizing constituencies. "By putting advocacy and voter registration restrictions on nonprofits, it is all too clear that the Republicans have unleveled the playing field in favor of for-profit developers. None of these restrictions would have applied to for-profits and their national and regional interest groups or their Political Action Committees."
- The right will not be placated by throwing in some bones for "faith-based" groups. That tactic just shows Democratic ignorance of how well most "fatih-based" nonprofits already work at providing services."Trust fund eligibility was not a real problem for faith-based providers….If they haven't mobilized to win their point to date on the faith-based funding formulas of the Administration, it is difficult to think that changing the eligibility standards for participating in the Fannie/Freddie affordable trust fund would stimulate the political juices of the faith-based players….And in the end, raising the specter of faith-based concerns about the RSC amendments swayed no votes among the Republicans."
- The Democrats caved by hoping, vainly, that the bad provisions would all go away in a conference committee. That is, they capitulated to letting the Republicans pull a stealth attack on a valuable program."The arcane world of a House/Senate conference committee to work out differences between companion bills is a not much more transparent process than an amendment sneaked into the Rules Committee to avoid full floor debate. These issues have to be put out in front of the public, not simply discussed on the Web pages and listservs of the nonprofit cognoscenti."
I've excerpted liberally from Cohen's article but would urge anyone interested in the future of progressive work under nonprofit rules and regulations to study it thoroughly. In fact, the entire NonProfit Quarterly is worth checking out as it regularly covers these issues in a non-technical, morally serious manner.