Cloaked in the garb of "fiscal responsibility," the Istook amendment sought to prohibit lobbying by organizations that received federal grants. Such organizations, Istook and his allies reasoned, were fleecing the government by using their federal grant money to lobby for still more grants. Fiscal conservatism demanded, therefore, that those feeding at the public trough be cut off. Of course, it just so happened that most federal grantees involved in lobbying were liberal-leaning activist groups, whereas conservative activists did most of their work through privately funded, tax-exempt organizations such as the Heritage Foundation and their ilk. This gave perfect "budget hawk" cover to what would otherwise be an obviously partisan attack.
Istook's name became attached to these amendments because he was their primary sponsor in the House appropriations committee, but originally a free-standing bill containing the same language was proposed by then-Reps. David McIntosh (R-IN) and Bob Ehrlich (R-MD). Istook joined as a primary cosponsor. Rather than bring the bill to the floor on its own, Istook attached it in committee to the must-pass Labor-HHS appropriations bill. Why? Because as one McIntosh aide said at the time, "This is something we believe will pass the House and may pass the Senate, but would be veto bait as a free-standing bill." ("Conservatives Spur New Lobbying War," Roll Call, July 10, 1995)
Concurrent with the heyday of the Istook amendment were other efforts backed by other Republicans, most notably ex-Rep. Bob Dornan (R-CA) and ex-Sen. Alan Simpson (R-WY), also aimed at eliminating or severely curtailing left-leaning lobbying. Dornan broke with Istook, McIntosh and Ehrlich and instead backed a measure to prohibit federal grants to any tax-exempt organization, targeting in particular the AARP, the AFL-CIO, the NEA and HIV/AIDS activists. Simpson actually conducted his own investigation of the AARP, prying into their finances and activities, ratcheting up pressure that many believe eventually resulted in AARP's capitulation years later on Republican-sponsored Medicare reform.
Few Democrats ever doubted that the Istook amendment was a partisan, targeted effort against liberal advocacy groups, but it there were any reason to doubt that conclusion, it's quickly erased by noting that it limited lobbying only by grantees, rather than by any organization that received federal financial support. The amendment's language, by focusing on grantees, specifically exempted from such regulation the many right-leaning non-profit "think tanks" upon which Congressional Republicans depended for policy initiatives and strategy. Istook supporters claimed there was little need for such regulation, because the right's think tanks were privately funded. But of course, this ignores their tax-exempt status, which amounts to a federal subsidy.
Is it a stretch to equate tax-exemption to a federal subsidy? Not if you ask Istook. In his June 29, 1995 testimony in support of his efforts, he cited several Supreme Court decisions upholding the government's right to regulate the use of federal funds for political advocacy that he hoped would demonstrate the legality of the restrictions he proposed. In fact, Istook quoted one such case, Regan v. Taxation with Representation of Washington, declaring, "Both tax exemptions and tax-deductibility are a form of subsidy that is administered through the tax system. A tax exemption has much the same effect as a cash grant to the organizationof the amount of tax it would have to pay on its income...."
The same effect as a cash grant? Then why no regulation of the Heritage Foundation? The American Enterprise Institute? The then-powerful, Gingrich-associated Progress and Freedom Foundation? National Empowerment Televison? Today's Tom DeLay-associated tax-exempt foundation? The Scaife-funded associations? Hmm.
Now Istook has found an even more targeted and less accountable way to target liberal advocacy groups: one at a time, through their tax records and those of their donors.
This measure apparently won't pass either, but perhaps there's a door opening here. Given the unprecedented access that tax-exempt, right wing think tanks and policy shops now enjoy in the Bush administration, perhaps there is some validity to what Istook himself testified all those years ago. Does the reemergence of the ballooning federal budget deficit demand a closer scrutiny of who American taxpayers are subsidizing and why?
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