Listening for Bits of Truth in DC

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Listening for Bits of Truth in DC
 By Michael Hamill Remaley, Senior Vice President, Public Policy & Communications

If you’ve ever spent a day or two pounding the hard terrazzo floors of the U.S. House and Senate office buildings talking with legislators and their staffs, you know that the artifice of political exchange presented in the now classic HBO television series “Veep” captures an essential truth of the absurdity of it all.  Every year during Foundations on the Hill, I am at once awed by the privilege and reminded that every polite exchange, every scripted reaction to the information we provide, presents an opportunity to probe deeper, to ask about political calculations and glimpse behind the curtain to see what’s really going on.

#FOTH2018 was last week and the biggest question we were seeking to answer during our Hill visits: What is the fate of the Johnson Amendment? (Spoiler alert: Read on to find out!)

Ever since a measure to repeal the Johnson Amendment was attached to the GOP Tax Bill – only to be stripped out at the last minute by the Senate Parliamentarian – nonprofit advocates in Washington have been warning that highly-placed Republican legislators are determined to insert the measure into other “must pass” legislation on the horizon, especially the omnibus budget bill. Leaders at United Philanthropy Forum, National Council on Nonprofits, Council on Foundations, Philanthropy Roundtable, Independent Sector and countless other nonprofit associations are pleading with legislators to not weaken the Johnson Amendment, to preserve the integrity of charitable nonprofits by maintaining the ban on their participation in electioneering and partisan political activities.

Until the “Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018’ was released last night, even folks who have spent their entire careers on the Hill didn’t know what extraneous riders were going to be attached to the bill. So a big part of our job for Foundations on the Hill was seeking out information and listening to the political winds blowing for directional indicators. From the legislative staff one of our NY Senators – both of whom are extraordinarily well-connected to the behind-the-scenes maneuvering – we heard that there is “no way” that Democrats would ever bargain away the Johnson Amendment for anything that the Republicans are offering up, especially “now that DACA has now been kicked down the road.”  From the legislative staff of more than one of our Republican Congressmen we heard a genuine understanding and fear of the political upheaval that a weakening of the Johnson Amendment would cause. 

In addition to the Johnson Amendment, we also dedicated time in our conversations (I had great support in these discussions from our Public Policy Fellow, Jo Christine Miles, and a PNY member) to establishing a deeper understanding of the concept of a Universal Charitable Deduction and building support for The Charity Act (HR 2916), which contains items simplifying the excise tax on private foundations, expanding the IRA charitable rollover to donor advised funds, and other nonprofit support policies. One thing we heard loud and clear from all parties is that there will be absolutely no action taken in this year on “tax fixes” because the Democrats are determined to have the American people see the GOP Tax Bill play out in its current form, with no changes or improvements, with an eye toward full repeal in future years. Until then, no “fixes” such as a Universal Charitable Deduction or the items contained in The Charity Act will get any substantial bipartisan support.

One other message we heard from New York legislative staff – a state that has much to lose if the 2020 Census fails to produce an accurate count – is unanimous and strong support for additional funding for the Census Bureau over the next three years.  Since PNY is still in the process of approving our official statement on Census 2020, we simply presented the basic facts about the current state of affairs.  Throughout the 2020 census “lifecycle” (FY 2012 through FY 2021) so far, Congress failed each year to allocate the amount of money the Census Bureau requested. As we reinforced in our Hill visits, the 2020 census has been underfunded from the start—by $210 million cumulatively through FY2017. To keep 2020 census preparations on track and preserve other vital Census Bureau data, we noted the position of the many nonprofit associations, which is that Congress should allocate $4.735 billion for the Census Bureau in FY2019.

In a bit of good news, we learned this morning that the omnibus spending bill does not contain any measures weakening the Johnson Amendment!  In its statement on the matter, the National Council on Nonprofits said that the outcome was “thanks to strong, united self-defense lobbying by charitable nonprofits, houses of worship, and foundations from all 50 states and DC.”

Last month in this column, I noted that some in the philanthropic sector seemed to assume that there is little point in making a case to an unsympathetic Congress because the GOP tax bill has passed and the damage had already been done to the nonprofit sector. But this is no time to be silent, I said.   

This is also no time to stop listening.  We need to keep our ears to the ground so we can act swiftly to protect the nonprofit sector. Information is power, even if sometimes you have to sit through a lot of polite head-nodding to get to it.

I will end with the wise words of NCN President Tim Delaney, “It would be nice to celebrate a long and hard-fought victory, but we cannot afford to relax.” 

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