"... In the Interest of History in America"

Sandria B. Freitag, September 1995

In 1889 the U. S. Congress chartered the American Historical Association, charging it to act "in the interest of American history, and of history in America." True to this charge, the AHA's activities range widely, from concerns over access to archives, through the presentation of recent scholarship at the Association's annual meeting, to the professionalization of graduate students. Many of these interests are reflected in the columns of this issue of Perspectives, including our responsibility to keep our members informed about developments in Washington that will affect their ability to do history in America—it is to this last effort that this column speaks.

The elected representatives who make up the AHA Council select the issues that the Association will pursue in fulfilling its responsibility to inform. Members are invited to help shape the positions taken by the Council, both through choices they make on their ballots, and by letters they address to Council members directly (indeed, this year's ballot will arrive in your mail soon after the September Perspectives).

In pursuing the policy directives adopted by the Council, the AHA is very fortunate to work with a range of organizations in Washington that possess complementary sources and viewpoints that help keep us all informed. These include the National Coordinating Council for the Promotion of History (NCC), whose column is regularly published in Perspectives, the National Humanities Alliance (NHA), whose executive director has contributed to this issue of Perspectives, and the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA). (We hope to include a report from COSSA's executive director in the next issue of Perspectives.) We have also been kept well informed on the progress of certain larger issues of concern to nonprofit organizations by Independent Sector, a national organization that works on behalf of nonprofits. Collaborations with other nonprofit and scholarly associations made possible by AHA's active involvement in these organizations enables us to move quickly to deal with issues of concern to historians all over the country. They also maximize our return on the extremely small percentage of our budget that we devote to lobbying and advocacy, giving us a dispro portionate effect for the actual dollars invested.

Regarding all of this effort, newspaper columnist Thomas Sowell has cried "foul!" In an article syndicated in the Washington Times, the Tampa Tribune, and other newspapers around the country, Sowell classifies the AHA with the American Association of Retired Persons, an organization founded to sell insurance to those over age 55, and argues that because both organizations are tax exempt, they illegally "lobby" when they inform their members of political processes and issues that affect them. [1] Sowell is not alone in this argument; two recent editorials in the Wall Street Journal argue that Republicans should oppose this kind of activity "since government funding goes overwhelmingly to liberal groups ... ." [2] Legislatively, the direct effort to silence nonprofits has been focused in the last few weeks on an amendment sponsored by Congressmen Istook, McIntosh, and Ehrlich, and recently passed as part of the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriation bill—to which we will return, in a minute.

The basic premises of this argument about illegal lobbying should give us pause. As revealed in the mostly anonymous hate mail we have received in the wake of Sowell's piece, his argument depends largely on its audience's ignorance. While a misunderstanding by the general population of the purposes of a professional historical association is hardly surprising, the lack of knowledge about the legal provisions regarding lobbying is much more serious. The law defines quite precisely the nature of lobbying, which involves attempts to influence votes on specific pieces of legislation. The general expression of philosophical support for a cause—however unpopular it might be with the right or the left—is not legally defined as lobbying, it is an intrinsic aspect of the exercise of democracy. Even within the legal definition of lobbying, the law provides that tax-exempt organizations may spend a portion of their nonfederal revenues on this ac tivity (this percentage is likely to be between 5 and 20 percent). Even if calculated to encompass the larger exercise of expressing philosophical support rather than simply the narrow legal definition of lobbying, the amounts the AHA devotes to these activities is minuscule compared to the permitted percentage.

A related misunderstanding on the part of his readers that Sowell apparently relies upon confuses tax exemption with the receipt of federal monies. The law certainly prohibits the use of federal monies for lobbying purposes, and nonprofits such as the AHA rigorously observe this prohibition. Sowell's article implies that the mere act of qualifying for tax-exempt status should prevent us from spending any money (even that privately raised) on information and advocacy activities.

Much more frightening and depressing than its dependence on misinformation, however, is the fact that Sowell's argument also relies on an assumption, apparently shared widely with his readers, that members of a civil society have no need to receive information. Nowhere in this understanding of democracy is there room for a variety of viewpoints or debates about policy. It is, apparently, perfectly appropriate for citizens to read the Wall Street Journal or Sowell's column and write to protest actions they disapprove of (Sowell carefully provided the AHA's address for this purpose), but it is not appropriate for them to receive the same kind of information from organizations established to serve them as members of a profession. This narrow and self-serving understanding of democracy serves no one's interests in the long run, and it certainly cannot result in the careful scrutiny of government by civil society—a goal that conservatives and liberals alike ought to share.

In my view this moves us from an indirect effort to stifle intellectuals in our society by shutting out the information they can provide (by cutting off federal support for scholarship), to a direct effort to muzzle those whose political philosophy, it is presumed, is at odds with those now in congressional power. That not all scholars or members of nonprofit associations hold liberal philosophies (as assumed by the Wall Street Journal) is a nuance ignored by this strategic and targeted attack. [3]

And strategy it is. The direct effort to silence nonprofits has been focused in the last few weeks on an amendment sponsored by Congressmen Istook, McIntosh, and Ehrlich, and recently passed in subcommittee as part of the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriation bill. The amendment has a number of astonishing provisions, but perhaps the two most significant changes proposed to current law seriously imperil the free flow of information and threaten to curtail the constitutional rights of nonprofit organiza tions to inform the public with their private funds. The first change is to redefine lobbying to include all advocacy efforts. The second change prohibits nonprofit organizations that use their own funds for advocacy, if these funds rise above a certain level, from receiving any federal support at all. (Other provisions are discussed by the NHA in another article on pages 27–28 of this issue of Per spectives.) It should be stressed that the concern is not with lobbying per se—indeed, House leadership has recruited assistance from such for-profit lobbyists as the beer industry to run full-page advertisements in support of the Istook amendment.) Instead, it targets lobbying by those who receive federal funds (while exempting those with contracts.) Yet Independent Sector argues that "because nonprofit organizations do not stand to profit by lobbying and can provide enormous insight on public policy issues, Congress has encouraged them to lobby, but has placed detailed restrictions on charitable organizations on the amount of money that can be used for these purposes." This congressional approach, the organization argues, has served the interests of the American public well.

Perhaps we should see the direct attack by Istook and his colleagues as a measure of the effective expression of public opinion. The AHA, for instance, sent out a large mailing to members this summer, calling for historians to join with others from scholarly societies in a new approach to grassroots contacts with elected representatives—that of urging the representatives to write "Dear Colleague" letters to bring legislative peer pressure to bear on fellow congressional representatives who had subcommittee and committee votes to cast. Analyses of recent votes on the NEH in the House and Senate suggest that this approach really worked. In the House, for instance, Rep. Peter Torkildsen (R-Mass.) had built a series of "Dear Colleague" letters that seem to have succeeded in making a convincing Republican argument for reasonable appropriations and a limit on further cuts. In the Senate, a bipartisan sign-on letter organized by Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) is credited with convincing Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) to support reauthorization (Gorton also chairs the subcommittee with responsibility for NEH appropriations).

Needless to say, the AHA disagrees with Sowell, Istook, and Co. We see as an important service that the AHA owes to its members the provision of information about activities in the capital that will affect the ability of scholars to do their work and to use their expertise to inform society about the implications of contemporary policies and practices. We know from the unprecedented level of response to our summer mailing that you appreciate the information and the opportunity to act in your capacity as citizens. We promise to use the resources available to keep you as up to date as possible—you should be able to participate fully in the democracy in which you do your scholarly work.


1. Sowell's column also ran in a number of other newspapers, including the West County (Calif.) Times, the Milwaukee Journal, and something called The Truth at Last (Marietta, Ga.), that devoted most of its pages to documenting the Jewish conspiracy.

2. See the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, June 23 and July 21, 1995.

3. A similar assumption seems, curiously, to underlie two or three letters sent to us by self-identified conservative AHA members. Their letters had an oddly triumphant tone when they said they would write their congressional representatives to express their opposition to continued federal support of scholarly endeavors—as though their exercise of democratic rights would have been unanticipated by us and contrary to our basic function of keeping membership informed.