Congress’ nonprofit agenda not pretty

By Gary D. Bass

With Congress finishing a recess and headed back to Washington, many of us in the nonprofit community are taking stock of the year so far and what lies ahead.

Conservatives pushed repeal of the estate tax, our country’s most progressive tax and an important incentive for charitable giving, with unprecedented force this year.

The Senate tried and failed to pass a permanent repeal bill.

Instead of backing away, though, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, worked with GOP leaders in the House to craft a “compromise” that was basically backdoor repeal.

Again, they couldn’t muster enough support to pass it in the Senate.

Unwilling to let it go, Frist and House leaders attempted to hijack negotiations on a pension reform bill by attaching that same estate tax “reform,” angering enough Senate Republicans that it too was unacceptable.

Finally, they resorted to linking this estate tax “reform” to an increase in the minimum wage and forced yet another Senate vote. The bill was larded with special provisions targeted to buy the votes of certain on-the-fence senators.

Even this legislative blackmail was not enough.

Despite his repeated failed attempts, Frist is planning yet another vote in September.

While debating the merits of various estate tax proposals is reasonable, pushing virtually the same legislative proposals over and over — especially when Congress has failed to do its most basic job of passing spending bills — is completely unreasonable.

So we see why the public increasingly views this as a “do nothing” Congress, and the distractions are likely to continue.

In July, House conservatives demanded a vote on legislation that could shrink government enough to “drown it in the bathtub,” as conservative Grover Norquist put it.

The bills would establish sunset commissions that could recommend cuts, consolidations or eliminations of any federal program, regulation or agency.

Some versions would even automatically kill programs and regulations if Congress fails vote to continue them through a fast-track process that restricts debate and public input.

The only thing stopping the sunset commission vote was infighting between extreme conservatives over different versions of a bill.

If they do reach some agreement in September, watch out.

In the meantime, federal spending bills are not getting done, and legislation that could be helpful to the nonprofit sector is ignored.

We must brace ourselves for more of the same and continue our work so that somehow what should be Americans’ priorities aren’t completely lost in the shuffle.

Gary D. Bass is founder and executive director of OMB Watch in Washington, D.C.

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