IS THE federal government funding the left? Yes, says the April issue of Conservative Digest, published by New Right direct mail king Richard Viguerie. "Cold bureaucrats and committed leftists," the magazine tells us, are "working hand-in-glove to achieve their political and social goals--using your tax dollars."
There is something to these charges. The magazine has its lists of foolish-sounding research projects. It seems to have come up with some examples of government subsidization of political advocacy-- a business government certainly should not be in. And it is surely correct in suggesting that there are many buddy systems, of grant givers and grant recipients, spending tax dollars in ways many--perhaps most--taxpayers wouldn't like.
When you look in more detail at many of the charges Conservative Digest makes, however, you get a different and much less objectionable picture than its headlines suggest. Many of the organizations that receive the largest sums receive them as contractors performing services successive congresses and presidents have said they wanted performed and for which they have consistently appropriated money. Examples are the monies the government pays Planned Parenthood for providing family planning services and the National Council of Senior Citizens for administering "senior aide" employment programs. These organizations take care to separate these government-financed activities from the programs they finance with money they raise from private sources; they are audited regularly and in enough depth that, in the case of Planned Parenthood, there have been charges of harassment by audit.
The programs they administer have received political scrutiny and have survived largely intact. Reagan administration proposals last year to merge family planning and "senior aid" programs into block grants were rejected by Congress; administration proposals this year to "zero" them out have not been accepted. Congress has voted to continue the legal services program. Conservative Digest's quarrel, then, is not so much with federal bureaucrats who defy the law--though there may be a few of them--as it is with Congress, which declines to change the law. The "funding of the left" is not a public scandal but a political issue.
As a political issue it is, of course, debatable. We can expect that the Reagan administration will "defund" some organizations its supporters dislike. And on a broader level, we agree that there is something vaguely disturbing about organizations that strongly advocate positions many sensible people find politically or morally repugnant, acting at the same time as administrators of government programs. It is easy to believe that the advocacy groups' employees will sometimes proselytize the program's beneficiaries in ways we would consider inappropriate (though not unheard of) for a civil servant. Advising organizations might also want to ask themselves whether they risk compromising their own purposes by accepting government money, and whether they want to assume the inevitable risk that it might be withdrawn suddenly for legitimate political reasons. This is not an area we want to rush into with a set of hard and fast rules. But Conservative Digest, though it does not prove all it claims, raises some difficult questions that thoughtful people of right, left and center should ponder.