Nonprofit advocacy needed

By Jennifer Lowe-Davis

What will the new year and the 110th Congress bring for nonprofits?

Lobby and ethics reforms return as House Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi promises quick action to clean up Congress.

Issues potentially affecting nonprofits include grassroots lobbying disclosure, disclosure of Congressional meetings and contacts, and a possible ban on travel and gifts.

Senate Majority Leader-elect Harry Reid has been quoted as saying lobby reform is a top priority for the Senate, but he may instead build upon reforms passed, but not enacted, by the 109th Congress.

Nonprofits can expect discussions around the charitable reforms advocated by incoming Finance Chairman Max Baucus to be a high priority for the Senate Finance and House Ways and Means Committees.

In October, Baucus’ staff issued a report on disgraced uber-lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s abuse of tax-exempt organizations that recommends a number of specific reforms relating to lobbying by 501(c)3 charities and 501(c)4 social-welfare groups.

Incoming Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel previously has shown distaste for proposed reforms, but with organizations lobbying for incentives such as the IRA rollover and non-itemizer deduction, potential horse-trading may ensue.

Once again, must-pass legislation will provide opportunities to insert onerous provisions targeting federal grantees or nonprofits that engage in various forms of advocacy.

In the 109th Congress, nonprofits galvanized to fight such anti-advocacy provisions.

During Senate floor debate on lobby-reform legislation, for example, a number of amendments would have mandated excessive penalties on nonprofits and required burdensome disclosure for nonprofits that get federal grants — regardless of the fact that those organizations already report to the federal government.

Onerous disclosure measures and anti-advocacy legislation are driven by Congress’ lack of knowledge about the sector and nonprofits’ reluctance to participate in the legislative process.

The nonprofit sector must turn this scrutiny into an opportunity to educate Congressional members and staff about the role nonprofits play in every Congressional district.

Each nonprofit, regardless of mission or size, should meet with its elected officials to educate members and staff on the importance of roles their organizations play in society.

The sector must also remain vigilant for anti-advocacy measures, guard and educate against them, and report and fight the provisions when they appear.

Jennifer Lowe-Davis is legislative counsel for the Alliance for Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based national association of advocacy organizations.

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