WASHINGTON, D.C. — A bill making its way through Congress could seriously hinder lobbying by nonprofit groups, including Jewish organizations such as B'nai B'rith and the federations.
The initiative, adopted by the House of Representatives and expected to come before the Senate, would restrict organizations that receive any federal grant money from engaging in "political advocacy."
The measure defines advocacy as including mailings for grassroots activity, providing information to the government, writing letters to elected officials, participating in court cases by filing friend-of-the-court briefs, and joining coalitions.
"This measure will have a chilling effect on the Jewish community and a devastating effect on B'nai B'rith because of the definition of advocacy," said Reva Price, associate director of the B'nai B'rith Center for Public Policy, which runs more than 30 buildings under HUD's elderly housing program.
Anita Friedman, executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services, agreed. "This is not a pretty picture," she said. "This is not in keeping with principles of democracy."
If passed, the legislation would severely limit the ability of nonprofit agencies to influence critical policy decisions, Friedman predicted.
"Agencies such as ours have a contribution to make in the development of public policy," she said. "Without our voices, the picture wouldn't be nearly as complete."
The anti-lobbying measure prohibits organizations that receive federal money from spending more than 5 percent of the first $20 million of their budgets on advocacy; on the remainder of their budgets, they are limited to spending 1 percent on advocacy.
Almost all Jewish federations across the country receive federal grant money in some form.
Although Jewish officials say no federation now spends more than 5 percent of its budget on advocacy, the Council of Jewish Federations is studying what the impact would be on individual federations if the measure becomes law.
Joel Carp, senior vice president of community services and government relations for the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, which is among the largest recipients of federal money in the Jewish community, said the measure "seeks to muzzle free speech and close channels between local groups and elected officials.
"They are talking about destroying the nonprofit community."
However, S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation executive vice president Wayne Feinstein was less pessimistic. He called the bill "ill advised" but asserted that it is aimed at "big member advocacy groups" like the American Association of Retired Persons and the National Rifle Association.
"These efforts, although misguided, are designed to deal with the abuses of nonprofit organizations," Feinstein said. "I believe we have been scrupulous and purer than Caesar's wife on this. It isn't aimed at us. It's aimed at AARP, the NRA, who are in the business to advocate first and help second."
Feinstein said he in no way supports the bill. However, he is more concerned that House and Senate leaders believe nonprofit organizations will be able to pick up the slack left by funding cuts without Congress taking steps to make charitable giving more attractive.
In addition to the federations and B'nai B'rith, the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society, Jewish Vocational Service and Jewish Family Services receive millions of dollars each year in federal grants.
To head off potential damage, nonprofits from all walks of life are uniting to fight the measure if it comes up in the Senate, which may take up the issue after returning from summer recess this week.
Proponents of the House measure assert that nonprofits in effect use federal grant money to lobby the government. Nonprofits should choose between providing services and advocacy, they say.
Rep. David McIntosh (R-Ind.), one of the sponsors of the House measure, charged that tax dollars are "paying special interest lobbyists to walk the halls of Congress and executive branch agencies."
McIntosh joined Reps. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.) and Robert Ehrlich (R-Md.) in introducing the measure to end what they termed "welfare for lobbyists."
Jewish activists who depend on federal grant money to run certain programs argue that the measure amounts to an unconstitutional "gag rule."
Current Internal Revenue Service regulations limit lobbying by nonprofits and forbid grant recipients from spending any federal money on lobbying.
These restrictions would be tightened further under the House measure, which expands the definition of lobbying to include almost all forms of advocacy.
Even federation-sponsored newspapers would fall under the definition of advocacy.
"I would not want to make the case that they weren't," Price said of Jewish newspapers affiliated with federations.
The measure also counts advocacy on the local and state level against the 5 percent an organization could spend.
"We spend dramatically less than that on material advocacy. Our donors wouldn't tolerate otherwise," Feinstein said.
Yet Diana Aviv, director of the Council of Jewish Federations' Washington Action Office, worries that the definition of political advocacy is so broad that it would limit what organizations can do.
Friedman, too, frets about the bill's potential damage. "We are not only involved in helping people solve their problems. We're dedicated to helping solve the broader social problems which trickle down. We're not just putting on Band-Aids. We're trying to provide safety so the injuries don't occur in the first place."