GOP Catch Phrase for the '90s: 'Defunding the Left'


With its dark legacy of witch hunts and enemies lists, the Republican Party is once again collecting names. In a project coordinated by the office of House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas, conservatives are working hard to identify political advocacy organizations that get federal money. And they're obviously not gunning for their ideological brethren.

"Defunding the Left" is the catch-phrase for the campaign to stop the flow of federal funds to not-for-profit groups that are associated with liberal causes, and it has gained powerful new impetus through the GOP's takeover of the House. In its latest incarnation, the drive aims to disrupt the liberal infrastructure that supports the legacy of the New Deal. It differs from earlier efforts because it is more narrowly targeted and because the GOP controls Congress.

Conservatives say they are preparing to storm the ramparts of the "welfare-industrial complex" -- the "iron triangle" of federal departments and agencies, liberal advocacy groups and their allies in Congress. These organizations fuel the federal government's runaway spending, they say. Yanking them off the federal teat is fundamental to dismantling Big Washington, a key goal of the "Contract With America."

While leaders of liberal organizations that might end up on the GOP hit list say that they've been bracing for something like this, they've yet to discern any coordinated maneuvers by conservatives to go after them. They're wary, but like their Democratic allies on Capitol Hill, they're not privy to the machinations of the Republican leadership.

Though still in its formative phase, the "project," as it is sometimes referred to by those involved, will rely heavily on the House Appropriations Committee. Already, the panel has struck hard, pruning funds promised in the fiscal 1995 budget to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Legal Services Corp.

But these three targets are only a small part of a much larger effort run by Virginia Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and a top adviser to Mr. Armey. A variety of conservative think tanks, chief among them the Heritage Foundation, are helping to identify federally subsidized organizations that influence federal policies.

The office of House Speaker Newt Gingrich has been acting as the liaison between the GOP leadership and various House committees.

"We're looking at what is the appropriate role of government and the proper use of taxpayer dollars," a key leadership aide said.

Conservatives are forthright about their intentions. "We will hunt [these liberal groups] down one by one and extinguish their funding sources," Grover G. Norquist, a GOP strategist and a member of Mr. Gingrich's inner circle, said in an interview. "With control over Congress and the White House, it's all over. We will go back and sue people who broke the law, who were ripping off taxpayers to do political work. If Planned Parenthood is lobbying, taxpayers need to be reimbursed."

Scott Hodge, the Heritage Foundation's budget director, acknowledged participating in the project.

"I have heard about and have been indirectly a part of those efforts to identify the various channels in which traditionally liberal institutions are funded and to cut those pipelines," he said an interview.

On April 7, Republican Sen. Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming announced that he and his staff are investigating the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), which he said has 33 million members and receives about $100 million a year in federal grants. "I'm going through their books and their records," he told the Associated Press.

"The perception is that it's an unfair playing field," said Michael Franc, the Heritage Foundation's director of congressional relations. "Advocacy groups on the left dip deep into the federal till."

Stephen Moore, director of fiscal policy studies for the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank that has championed the idea of closing the federal spigot to advocacy groups on the left and right, said that his organization is trying to identify the "Terrible 10" of advocacy groups.

Among the advocacy groups singled out by conservatives so far: AARP; the AFL-CIO; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; the Association of Head Start Grantees; the Child Welfare League; the Children's Defense Fund; Families USA; the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc.; the National Council of La Raza; the National Council of Senior Citizens; and Planned Parenthood Federation of America Inc.

Thus far, the conservatives' tactics have been subtle, built on process: slash the staffs of congressional committees, cutting off the Democrats' knowledge base; eliminate funds for legislative service organizations, the Congressional Black Caucus and the Democratic Study Group chief among them; and attack the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the positive voice of the "welfare-industrial complex."

Among approaches under consideration: applying the Freedom of Information Act to organizations that receive federal funds, which would give GOP strategists a powerful investigative tool, and requiring groups whose representatives testify at congressional hearings to divulge their funding sources. Though sounds innocent, this would allow Republicans to assemble a list of targets.

Privatization and block grants are other potential weapons in the GOP's arsenal. Privatization could be used to cut social advocacy groups out of the money loop by replacing them with for-profit contractors. Block grants to the states could be used to achieve the same end, in that they would bypass the federal departments and agencies that award funds to advocacy groups.

Even then, conservatives acknowledge, the winnowing won't be easy. "The tentacles of these liberal organizations are so deep and ubiquitous that there is no magic bullet," said Kate O'Beirne, the Heritage Foundation's vice president for government relations. "There's no set piece in what we're doing, we're covering the waterfront."

Conservatives maintain that liberal advocacy groups are illegally using federal funds to lobby. Now that Republicans control Congress and the federal purse strings, they have the opportunity to tie off these money connections -- "cleaning out the institution," as the Cato Institute's Mr. Moore put it.

While there are strict laws and accounting standards to prohibit federal funds from being used for political advocacy, conservatives argue that they aren't enforced.

"The law is most often honored in the breach," Ms. O'Beirne said.

"Publicly funded political advocates rarely find themselves debating anyone who's privately funded," she added. "They are all supported by tax dollars. If their ideas are so compelling, let them go out in the marketplace, as Heritage does, and see if the public agrees with them."

The battle may well turn on how scrupulous advocacy groups have been about staying in-bounds legally. "It's illegal to lobby with federal funds," said Gary D. Bass, the executive director of OMB Watch, a watchdog group founded as a response to the Reagan administration's efforts to defund the left. "The nonprofits wouldn't do it. There's real sensitivity on their part about what their funds are used for."

"I broke my pick on this issue," said Michael J. Horowitz, who led the Reagan administration's campaign to smash the "iron triangle" as the chief counsel at the Office of Management and Budget in 1981-1985.

The campaign was so controversial, he recalled, that then-Chief of Staff James A. Baker III confronted him in the halls of the Old Executive Office Building and said, "The leader of the free world has come to me and said that all he has been hearing is this business about A-122."

Mr. Baker was referring to a government-wide directive issued by OMB titled "Cost Principles for Non-Profit Organizations," which Mr. Horowitz had crafted to assail the triangle. In the process, he set off a rebellion.

Mr. Horowitz says today that the directive was aimed solely at curbing undue influence by government-subsidized organizations and was not an attempt to "defund the left," although that is how conservatives refer to it.

"It is illegal to cut funding for a program for ideological reasons," said Mr. Horowitz, who is now a senior fellow in the Washington office of the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank. "I find both the expression and the concept of defunding the left wholly appalling."

Controlling the appropriations process is the chief distinction between the 1980s version of "Defunding the Left" and its 1990s sequel. The ability to target a few key organizations is a political -- asset that conservatives hope will allow them to divide and conquer entrenched constituencies. An obscure and tedious process, appropriations move line by line, behind closed doors, mostly out of the eyes of the media and beyond the attention span of the public.

For the Republicans, the appropriations process has the additional advantage of complicating matters for the White House. The president can't put back into appropriations money that Congress has zeroed out. Even the line-item veto would be a futile tool because vetoing a zero still adds up to nothing.

Indeed, the line-item veto could just make matters worse for the White House. To kill the offending language in an appropriations bill, President Clinton might have to cancel a program he especially liked. That could be a formula for gridlock, with the president threatening to block favored GOP items to defend programs of his own. The horse-trading would be monumental and the public reaction predictable. In that sense, defunding the left could spell trouble for both parties.

Jeff Shear is a writer for the National Journal, from which this article was adapted.

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