WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Congressional Republicans -- with the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas playing a key role -- are preparing a budget-cutting assault on scores of government-funded nonprofit groups whose liberal views are considered a threat to the conservative agenda.
The groups that are expected to come under fire, according to congressional and conservative sources, range from the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the Population Council to the American Association of Retired Persons, the AFL-CIO, the Urban League and the Nature Conservancy.
The effort, referred to by conservatives as "defunding the left," is intended to take aim at what they consider advocacy groups that lobby for liberal social programs from which they receive grants and contracts. But experts warn that other government-supported nonprofit organizations with lobbyists -- such as Catholic Charities (the largest single nonprofit recipient of government funds, at $218 million in 1994), the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the League of Women Voters and the American Bar Association -- could be caught in the cross-fire.
Led by Virginia Lamp Thomas, the wife of the Supreme Court justice, a group of House Republican experts and staff members has been working under the auspices of House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas. Their aim is to identify nonprofit TC organizations whose funding should be cut and to plan a strategy to end their grants or contracts with the government or the programs for which they provide services.
Mrs. Thomas is a former Labor Department lawyer and lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce who last year earned $78,800 as a senior policy coordinator for the House Republican Conference. She joined Mr. Armey's staff Jan. 4 as his $108,234 chief liaison for all House committees. She declined to return telephone calls, and sources said she is sensitive about her position and reluctant to be seen as a leader in Mr. Armey's defunding effort.
But Armey spokesman Ed Gillespie said that Mrs. Thomas "does oversight" for the majority leader and has coordinated meetings of House committee staff members as they have planned the campaign to defund nonprofit advocacy groups. She has been the contact for representatives of organizations seeking information about Mr. Armey's effort.
But so far, Mrs. Thomas has refused to meet with groups like OMB Watch, which monitors government programs, and Independent Sector, which represents more than 800 philanthropic organizations, according to several sources. And her involvement in the defunding effort has raised sharp questions among liberals who recall that some of the targeted groups -- labor unions, legal advocates and the National Organization for Women -- were involved in the bitter battle to defeat her husband's nomination.
One group lobbyist who has spoken with Mrs. Thomas and asked to remain anonymous said, "She remains outraged about the treatment of her husband."
Patrick Burns, spokesman for the National Council of Senior Citizens, which received about $72 million in federal contracts last year, noted that "it's against the law to target groups for defunding based on ideology. . . . The question here is why the wife of a Supreme Court justice is engaged in an illegal witch hunt. What is the motivation? What the Republicans seem to be saying is that because we are not politically correct, we should lose our grants on contracts that were awarded on merit."
Mr. Gillespie told Newsday that in searching for areas of federal spending where money might be saved, Mr. Armey is looking not at ideological targets, but rather at "groups on the left and right that get money from the government and use it to lobby for increases in their grants and contracts."
But most conservative nonprofit groups are privately funded by corporate sponsors and wealthy activists. And House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Georgia Republican, in a recent interview with U.S. News & World Report magazine, called for privatizing social services through charities and "defunding the left" by ending appropriations that propagate liberal ideas.
Most of the federal support for nonprofit groups goes to health institutions for Medicaid, Medicare and other federally supported health programs; colleges and universities receive $10 billion more for research and student aid. But the primary targets for defunding are the social services, housing and arts nonprofit groups, which receive an estimated $16 billion a year.
Mr. Gillespie said Mr. Armey is weeks away from a legislative strategy to make the cuts. But the conservative effort is taking shape on other fronts. Earlier this month, Mr. Armey sent a letter to 82 chief executives of major companies chiding them for giving money to nonprofit organizations that support the welfare state.