Election roundup, Part 1: Commentary

By Rick Cohen

Few voters went to the polls to pull a lever because of charity and philanthropy.

November 8th’s mid-term elections were a repudiation of the leadership of President Bush, the Republican Party, and the war in Iraq.

And the results reverberate from Capitol Hill to state gubernatorial and legislative races to local city council elections.

Charitable accountability and nonprofit issues overall didn’t rank quite so high.

Nonetheless, there is much to look forward to — or organize around — with the Democratic sweep of both houses of Congress and other dimensions of the election.

NONPROFIT EXPERIENCE

The freshman class of the 110th Congress possesses lots of nonprofit experience of the activist sort:

* Peter Welch helped create the Vermont Housing and Land Conservation Trust Fund, a model resource for nonprofit housing developers.

* Alternative newspaper owner John Yarmouth is the founder of the Center for Kentucky Progress, a state policy think-tank.

* In Maryland, John Sarbanes has experience in efforts such as the Dunbar Project working to improve a half-dozen public schools to affordable-housing development in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood working with the Enterprise Foundation.

* Pennsylvania’s Jason Altmire joins Congress with experience as a board member of the Manchester-Bidwell Development Trust, one of the nation’s foremost social enterprises established by MacArthur genius award winner Bill Strickland.

* And a half-dozen or more new members come with experience in nonprofit law clinics and legal services operations providing representation to the poor.

Inside the freshman class are clearly more than a few who “get” the significance of nonprofit advocacy — and who should be open to the voice of activist nonprofits.

REPUBLICAN STUDY COMMITTEE

Remember the far-right caucus of Republicans that tried to restrict nonprofit — and only nonprofit — users of the proposed Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac affordable-housing trust fund from engaging in otherwise legal nonpartisan voter registration and public policy advocacy?

Well-known and influential committee members like Indiana’s Mike Sodrel, Chris Chocola and John Hostettler; Minnesota’s Gil Gutknecht; and Arizona’s TV-ubiquitous J.D. Hayworth lost their seats on November 7th.

That could take the steam out of the study committee’s repeated assaults on nonprofit free speech rights.

And for the first time in decades, Ernest Istook of the infamous Istook Amendment is out of Congress, having left to run for governor of Oklahoma. He was soundly defeated by his Democratic opponent.

GOODBYE, UNETHICAL LOBBYISTS

Although much of Congress participated in Jack Abramoff’s political booty, Republican Study Committee member Richard Pombo of California stands out as the member of Congress who took more Abramoff money than anyone else.

Pombo lost, too.

Having taken both houses, the Democrats are now poised to make lobbying reform their first order of business — and it would be to their ultimate discredit if they could do no better than their Republican predecessors.

Moving lobbying reform would allow Sen. Max Baucus of Montana to revive his amendment that would have required the charities and foundations of Senate members to disclose their donors and prevent senators and their relatives and campaign staff from partaking in any of the charitable funds.

GOODBYE RICK SANTORUM

Pennsylvania’s junior senator had fashioned himself as a champion of the nonprofit sector, joining with Republican Study Committee members to pressure Sens. Grassley and Baucus to drop efforts to strengthen charitable accountability regulations.

Despite the dubious operations and accountability of his own personal charity, Santorum did his utmost to scuttle the Senate Finance Committee’s regulatory reform efforts.

Among his most stunning moves was to co-sponsor Baucus’ amendment calling for disclosure on congressionally-controlled foundations while refusing to release the names of the donors to his Operation Good Neighbor Foundation.

He might have been a champion of sorts, but it wasn’t for the nonprofit sector and social progress.

Part 2: New Congress includes experts in nonprofit accountability.


Rick Cohen is national correspondent for The Nonprofit Quarterly.

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