Nonprofits seduced by White House spin control

By Rick Cohen

The September 2005 issue of Independent Sector’s “Memo to Members” contained a letter from Diana Aviv, the organization’s president and CEO, describing her visit to the White House on September 6 to hear President Bush’s plans for Hurricane Katrina relief and reconstruction.

The letter described Aviv’s “sense of awe” at the opportunity of “following in the footsteps of others who have come to do business with the President.”

The adulatory letter described Bush’s openness to hearing from Independent Sector and the two-dozen or so other national “voluntary organizations” that participated in the White House meeting.

The national media reported on the real purpose of the meeting, organized by the White House not to advance and improve the response to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, but as political damage control. The White House spin effort succeeded in this instance. The substance and tone of the Independent Sector statement provide exactly the desired cloak of nonprofit credibility for the shameful and incompetent performance of the Bush White House and the federal agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Administration and the Department of Homeland Security under President Bush’s direction.

Remarkably, the Independent Sector leadership took the meeting as an opportunity to lobby for the CARE Act, the organization’s longstanding policy fixation on the non-itemizer charitable tax deduction.

The leadership could have taken the opportunity to lambaste Bush for having gutted the federal programs that underfunded the wetlands protection and infrastructure investments that would have been necessary to protect New Orleans from the overflowing levees, or for having appointed an unqualified, resume-padding former director of an Arabian Horseman’s Association to mismanage the federal response.  Somehow, the non-itemizer came to mind.

The cardinal policy objective of Independent Sector for the past decade, the CARE Act would permit non-itemizing taxpayers, or those who take the standard deduction on their federal taxes, to deduct charitable deductions over $250 up to a maximum of $500 or, for joint filers, charitable giving over $500 up to $1,000, from their taxable income.

Independent Sector has long argued that the non-itemizer will spur significant increases in charitable giving, but critics and analysts such as the Congressional Budget Office have suggested that the new charitable giving will be paltry and hardly offsetting at all the cost to the federal treasury.

A more efficient and productive charitable giving incentive in the CARE Act, permitting charitable donations from IRAs, perhaps makes the CARE Act somewhat more palatable in the aggregate, but does not obscure the limited benefit and large cost of the non-itemizer.

Nonetheless, CARE’s Republican sponsor, U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, has made the non-itemizer tax deduction the top priority in the so-called Republican Senate Anti-Poverty Agenda.

That may explain why the Independent Sector leadership is cozying up to the Republican White House.

It also exposes a paltry strategy to addressing poverty by the White House and the Republican leadership, which have slashed taxes and gutted a bevy of federal programs, and were caught so unprepared for the true poverty, squalor and social unrest in New Orleans in the wake of hurricane.

Almost two decades ago, then-New York Mayor John V. Lindsay described the combination of grinding inner-city poverty and federal underfunding and neglect as a “slow motion riot”, which the Republican and Independent Sector glorification of the non-itemizer and other charitable-giving incentives cannot and will not undo.

This isn’t the first time Independent Sector appears to have been seduced by the siren call of the White House spin effort.

In 2004, Independent Sector lobbied the White House to promote Congressional support for a corporate tax cut of hundreds of billions of dollars if the non-itemizer also could be appended.

In early 2001, Independent Sector lent mainstream nonprofit respectability to the Bush administration’s faith-based program by attending and taking a prominent place next to Bush during the signing of the executive order creating a White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

What nonprofit leaders should be doing is joining people of all political persuasions in calling the Bush administration to account for what nearly everyone sees all too clearly as a collapse of the federal government into bumbling incompetence.

Unfortunately, the Independent Sector letter, perhaps crafted to generate White House support for the annually moribund non-itemizer, transforms the leadership of the nonprofit sector from watchdog to lapdog.

By giving political cover to the Bush Administration as it searches for exculpation and scapegoats, our sector fails to remember the fundamental lessons of the past year of Senate hearings and investigations of charity and philanthropy.

The inept and seemingly insensible performance of the federal government leaders prior to and following Hurricane Katrina constitute a clarion picture of a systemic lack of accountability.

One would think that our sector would be calling out the Bush administration for its sheer incompetence, its failure to deliver on its mission funded by our waning tax dollars, a case study of what concerns for accountability should mean.

The nonprofit sector stands for values that are distinctly not part of the White House political damage control and public relations spin effort that Independent Sector knowingly or unknowingly has joined.

Unfortunately for the people of New Orleans, Gulfport, Biloxi and so many other cities, President Bush’s “can-do” administration has revealed itself as the “couldn’t care less” administration.

Rick Cohen is executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy in Washington, D.C.

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