Muffling the Left

Watchdog Reveals Effort to Gag Anti-Bush Causes

The Bush administration is actively seeking to gag or punish social service organizations that challenge the party line on such matters as health care for poor children and HIV prevention, according to a new report. Nonprofits that disagree with the president's own solutions, or go further and blame him for problems in the first place, have come to expect unpleasant consequences. Those might include audits of federal-funds spending and reviews of content, such as workshop literature.

"If you disagree with the administration on ideological grounds, they're going to come down with a hammer. This has huge implications for the free flow of speech in this country," says Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, itself a nonprofit, which released the report last week as part of its 20-year-old mission to monitor White House budget and spending decisions.

As dramatic as that assessment sounds, the assault has been nearly invisible to the public. The Bush administration and its allies have hit progressives under the radar, maneuvering in the soporific—if enormously important—realm of nonprofit oversight.

The idea of a right-wing conspiracy to audit nonprofits is more likely to set off yawns than outrage. Yet virtually every imaginable social cause—civil liberties, reproductive rights, affirmative action, accessible health care—relies on a lifeline of nonprofit advocates, fundraisers, and service providers. Since nonprofits operate on a tax-exempt basis and often receive government funding, they have always been subject to federal oversight and are forbidden from engaging in electoral politics. Under George W. Bush, however, oversight has quietly morphed into ideologically motivated intimidation and censorship, according to OMB Watch's review of some dozen specific conflicts.

Even though causes of the right have their own tax-exempt advocates, conservatives have long reviled nonprofits in general for "supporting the welfare state," according to Bass. He points to the major efforts to defund nonprofits and restrict their advocacy during the Reagan administration in the '80s and in Newt Gingrich's Congress in the '90s.

But those were head-on, equal opportunity offensives, going after an entire genre. Under obvious attack, "the nonprofits really rose up like a firestorm" and survived, says Bass. The selective, stealthy approach of today is "unprecedented," he says. His organization had wanted to put out the alert months ago, but piecing together the scattered developments took time. "Almost every example we have here, there's a link to the Bush administration directly, not just ideologically," says Bass.

Bush spokesperson Allen Abney declined to comment Monday, saying the White House had not yet thoroughly reviewed the July 28 critique.

In perhaps the clearest example of the report's claims of squashed dissent, Bush's Health and Human Services Department (HHS) threatened advocates of the nonprofit Head Start—including parents and teachers of poor children—with monetary sanctions or even prosecution for speaking out against a presidential proposal.

Head Start is the hardly controversial program that has promoted education and healthcare for young children nationwide since 1965. Participating providers launched a campaign earlier this year to get parents and teachers to tell Congress their concerns that standards and funding might fall with Bush's plan to decentralize the program. HHS soon began warning Head Start affiliates that their lobbying might violate nonprofit rules. This summer the National Head Start Association sued the administration, claiming it was interfering with First Amendment rights, and won. But organizers worry that the administration's warnings, wrong as they were, might have frightened many into silence.

HHS began its apparent policing of protest a year earlier, when it audited over a dozen AIDS service organizations after they publicly shamed the administration at a July 2002 AIDS conference in Barcelona. There, U.S.-based advocates accused the Bush administration of cheaping out on HIV prevention and, during HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson's closely watched speech, heckled so forcefully as to drown out his entire address. Conservative members of Congress immediately demanded that HHS review the nonprofits' spending of federal funds in Spain. HHS complied.

Thompson's deputy, Claude Allen, told The Washington Post at the time that advocacy groups "need to think twice before preventing a Cabinet-level official from bringing a message of hope to an international forum."

In an interesting but brief mention, OMB Watch also reveals that groups currently applying for federal grants to provide humanitarian relief in Iraq are required to advertise the U.S. government's generosity. Presumably, any criticism of Bush administration policy would be considered to send the opposite message.

Proof that this new scrutiny of nonprofits is political, and not just about careful accounting, shows in the probes of work that groups do with money from nonfederal sources, according to the report. "What is striking is this notion that government may be reaching into groups they don't agree with to see even how their private dollars are being spent—and using that to decide whether they receive federal dollars," says Bass.

Most squarely in the administration's sights are groups that deal progressively and explicitly with sex education. One of them, Stop AIDS, is a San Francisco-based nonprofit that has used streetwise language to promote HIV prevention among gay and bisexual men since 1984. Since Bush took office, it has been audited twice by HHS and forced to submit program materials for review by the HHS subsidiary Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), according to Stop AIDS spokesperson Shana Krochmal.

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