Campaign Reform: Attack on Nonprofits Stalled for Now

AHA Staff, May 1998

Fears that the Campaign Reform and Election Integrity Act (H.R. 3485)—sponsored by Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.)—would significantly restrict the ability of nonprofit organizations such as the AHA to engage in public policy matters were allayed when, in a dramatic late development, the relevant provision was dropped from the bill. The bill had originally contained a provision that sought to limit nonprofit advocacy activity. Several public interest bodies—such as Alliance for Justice, OMB Watch, and Let America Speak—had launched a campaign to oppose the passage of the bill. OMB Watch had, in fact, created facilities for sending letters of protest to members of Congress through its web site at http://test.capweb.net/omb. The intense opposition to the antiadvocacy provisions and the desire to gather greater support led, it is believed, to the deletion of the provisions. The intention of the framers remains, however, and nonprofit as well as public interest organizations will keep vigilant watch over future legislation.

Nonprofits are already prohibited from electioneering; the new provision sought to considerably broaden the scope of "political activity" to include attempts to influence federal legislation, and even educating the public about policy issues. The new law would also have seriously impaired the ability of nonprofit organizations to communicate with legislators and the government.

Most nonprofits are required under the tax code to publicly disclose any expenditure on lobbying and, therefore, their lobbying efforts are already restricted. Because the new law proposed oversight by the Federal Election Commission (in addition to the IRS), nonprofits would have been forced to expend time and energy that could have been devoted to serving their members to dealing with the new restrictions. In effect, they will have had to maintain two sets of records—one for the FEC and one for the IRS.

The Thomas bill also required nonprofits to establish an unchangeable annual cap for "political activity." This could have meant that unless nonprofits planned a year ahead, they would have been unable to deal with crises that crop up during a fiscal year.

The present expansion of the Istook Amendments (which similarly restrict activities of nonprofits) in a new guise had alarmed many nonprofit organizations which feared that even their normal, legitimate activities would have been severely curtailed. In any case, the provisions already in place through the Istook Amendments have exercised a chilling effect on the participation of nonprofit organizations in public life. The new proposals would have made it significantly more difficult for the public to hear alternative voices and viewpoints or even receive information.

Nonprofit organizations play a vital role in the development of regulatory matters ranging from information access to education and from environmental protection to civil rights. The proposed legislation could have unnecessarily restricted the participation of nonprofits in the development of good public policy.