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Election roundup, Part 2: Commentary

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By Rick Cohen

The mid-term elections will give Congress new members with experience in regulating nonprofits, and new committee chairs who might be expected to be tougher in demanding accountability from nonprofits and charitable foundations.

FORMER ATTORNEYS GENERAL

At least two of the six new Democratic senators are former state attorneys general with hands-on experience in nonprofit accountability issues.

Rhode Island’s Sheldon Whitehouse and especially Missouri’s Claire McCaskill bring an attorney general’s experience to nonprofit accountability issues.

If New Mexico Attorney General Patricia Madrid wins her cliffhanger election, that would be a third former attorney general entering Congress in 2007.

And don’t forget that Eliot Spitzer joined the landslide as New York’s new governor.

These are the people whose departments investigated nonprofit hospitals for their frequently dubious charitable activity and nonprofit telemarketers for their minimal charitable benefit.

They should get the need for more muscular government oversight and enforcement.

WAYS AND MEANS

U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel of New York has been waiting for this moment for decades and now it’s his replacing retiring Republican Bill Thomas as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

While Rangel has questioned why nonprofit hospitals and foundations have delivered so little of their tax exempt largesse to the low-income households of his Central Harlem district, he has been generally reluctant in the past to push for major charitable accountability reforms.

He even authored a letter much like those of the Republican Study Committee and outgoing Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania asking that the Senate Finance Committee cool its regulatory reform ardor.

That move may have been a response to his own experience with an investigation by the state attorney general of the Apollo Theater during his time as the Apollo’s board chair.

But he might be more interested in what foundations and organizations with big endowments actually deliver to disadvantaged constituencies like his, an issue of substantive rather than procedural accountability.

Nonprofits can especially look forward to one aspect of Rangel’s Ways and Means leadership: He has long opposed making permanent any of the Bush administration’s tax cuts, including the estate tax.

GOVERNMENT REFORM

While Charles Rangel might not be the top champion of nonprofit accountability, California’s Henry Waxman might be, especially since he replaces Virginia’s Tom Davis as chairman of the Government Reform Committee.

Davis’ committee turned a blind eye to Jack Abramoff’s lobbying only until long after Abramoff was convicted and sentenced for his lobbying practices involving Davis’ political allies such as Ohio Congressman Bob Ney.

Forced to resign just before the election, Ney’s downfall included indulging himself in funds from Abramoff’s tax-exempt Capital Athletic Foundation.

Waxman is an investigative bulldog, ready to jumpstart the kinds of congressional oversight that should occur around Katrina relief and reconstruction aid, Iraq reconstruction contracting, and much more.

His hard-wired government-performance ethic might get his House peers to look at the nonprofit dimensions of his investigations.

SENATE FINANCE

Under Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Senate Finance Committee was quite up to the task of investigating nonprofit and philanthropic scandals, from Abramoff to the National Capital Area United Way and The Nature Conservancy.

As ranking minority member, Max Baucus worked collaboratively with Grassley on these issues.

In the days before the election, Baucus took the initiative by issuing a devastating critique of the nonprofits that played ball with Abramoff and risked their tax-exempt status, an indicator that he won’t drop charitable accountability issues when he takes the committee’s helm in January.

Having shaken up the Council on Foundations this past May with an address calling for foundations to double their rural grantmaking (to states like his own Montana) in five years, Baucus would be hard-pressed to explain why he wouldn’t continue and increase his attention to charity and philanthropy as chair of the Senate Finance Committee.

BALLOT INITIATIVES

Nonprofits have to be heartened by a non-federal aspect of the November 7th election results.

The TABOR initiatives to cap state government spending and the regulatory takings proposals generally bit the dust.

Voters defeated the well-funded campaigns for these initiatives that would have gutted government activities that much of the nonprofit sector depends on.

CRITICAL MASS

But many of the newly-elected Democrats didn’t campaign on progressive issues other than strident opposition to the Bush Administration’s implementation of the ever-deteriorating Iraq war.

A number look more like Heath Shuler, the former Washington Redskins quarterback who unseated North Carolina’s Charles Taylor.

Although Taylor was among the most reliable supporters of the Bush administration’s economic and social policies, Shuler and several others in the freshman class appear not much less conservative.

Originally sought by the Republicans to run under their banner, Shuler is a leader of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and several other new members are active and vocal in local and regional church efforts, making them unlikely candidates to raise issues about the role of religious organizations in government programs.

Limited government oversight and the lack of a requirement for transparency on the use of tax-exempt resources by thousands of churches, mosques and synagogues will probably continue to go unaddressed in the 110th Congress.

Many new members may be loathe to take on the questions about the Bush administration’s faith-based program raised by former White House aide David Kuo in his new book, Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction.

The result of November 7th is two barely-Democratic houses of Congress arrayed against two more years of lame-duck Republican control of the executive branch and domination of the judiciary.

Unless there’s a sudden flowering of bipartisan cordiality, not much legislation is going to flow.

But there is a critical mass of new members of Congress who should be approachable for the nonprofit sector.

This is the time for nonprofits to stop sitting on their hands and laurels.

Part 1: What the mid-term elections mean for nonprofits. 


Rick Cohen is national correspondent for The Nonprofit Quarterly.

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