Muffling the Left


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.

Even after these grillings, Stop AIDS received a letter this June from the CDC objecting to workshops with titles such as, “Oral Sex = Safe Sex?” and “In our Prime: Men for Hire,” which promised to cover “seven guidelines for safe and friendly relations with escorts.” The government letter threatens a “disallowance or discontinuation of federal funding” if Stop AIDS continues to use language the administration believes promotes sexual activity.

Krochmal says the organization has been careful not to use its federal funding for such workshops, instead relying on the more progressive support of city government. “We know that what it takes to catch the eye of a guy walking down Castro Street 20 years after the movement began may raise the eyebrows of men in Washington, D.C. But it takes a certain kind of method to get our point across,” she says.

She called the Bush administration’s crackdown on Stop AIDS “about politics, not about public health,” because the language it wants quashed has proved effective in luring clients for prevention services.

The fight with Washington has forced Stop AIDS to consult with legal counsel, something many resource-strapped nonprofits worry about having to do. If CDC prevails, Krochmal says, it will add another brick in an overall homophobic agenda she sees building under Bush. From Stop AIDS’s troubles to the proposed federal anti-gay marriage legislation, “It’s an institutionalizing of policies that continue to devalue the lives of gay and lesbian people in this country,” she says.

At the same time the Bush administration is making it harder for some progressive nonprofits to operate, it has bent over backward for those with which it is more ideologically in tune, says Bass. While OMB Watch supports federal funding of faith-based nonprofits, Bass says it is unfair that Bush has granted these groups special exemptions, for instance the ability to discriminate in hiring and substitute religious qualifications for professional ones.

Meanwhile, a December 2002 letter from the federal government to groups dealing with HIV prevention and sex education abroad admonished that “all operating units should ensure that USAID-funded programs and publications reflect appropriately the policies of the Bush administration.” Some nonprofits worry that the smallest conflict—for instance over the use of words like “condom” or “abortion” on a website—could give the government an excuse to funnel funds to groups whose views it prefers.

OMB Watch’s report also touches on nonprofits’ fears about post-September 11 surveillance by law enforcement. A major lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and Muslim interest groups last week calls unconstitutional a section of the USA Patriot Act that allows investigators to secretly examine organizations’ financial and membership records and even seize them without notice. Such probes need only be minimally linked to a national security investigation. The privacy of nonprofits’ staff and clients is not guaranteed, and advocates say the fear of attracting the FBI’s notice restricts freedom of expression.

“If this is a pattern that is sustained, then it erodes a key part of our ability to pursue justice,” says Bass of the selective policing of nonprofits. Indeed, Stop AIDS’s Krochmal says, “We have been told there is a shortlist of organizations that won’t be funded next year. It’s obviously of great concern to us.”