THE ADMINISTRATION has proposed new
regulations to prevent recipients of government contracts and grants from using federal money to support lobbying activities. The rules have stirred alarm among advocacy groups, which fear that the rules are a response to right-wing demands for "defunding the left." A closer look at the proposals suggests, however, that whatever their motivation, the new regulations are a reasonable attempt to put some teeth into a longstanding prohibition against government-subsidized lobbying.
Sixty-four years ago Congress passed a law making it a federal crime to use government money to influence legislation in Congress. Government contractors and advocacy groups, which swarm over Capitol Hill, will tell you that they--like the bureaucrats and military men beside them--are not violating that law because they are not trying to influence legislation. They are only providing information that Congress needs to make an informed judgment. And, to the extent that what they do is clearly lobbying, they will assure you that federal money is not being used to pay for it.
A fair-minded observer will find it hard to believe that these fine distinctions are so carefully observed in practice. Government auditors, who must now decide whether a contractor or grant recipient has diverted federal money to lobbying, find the task nearly impossible. The proposed rules would try to make their job easier by requiring all contractors and recipients of grants to make a strict separation between people, facilities and equipment supported in any way by federal money and those used for political advocacy.
The strongest objections to these regulations come from the nonprofit organizations and small corporations. They argue that it will be much easier for the big defense corporations to afford to pay for separate lobbying staffs and facilities. That's true. Large organizations have many advantages that the law cannot equalize. But if, in fact, federal money is not now being used to support lobbying, the added burden on small organizations should not be too great for any organization with a useful product to sell or whose charitable activities command a public following. Advocacy organizations may also want to consider that the extra effort and expense of maintaining clearly separate advocacy and research efforts will increase the credibility of both activities. Many highly effective lobbying groups avoid taking federal grants for exactly that reason.
The new rules will not prevent advocacy organizations from receiving grants or contracts. Nor will they keep any individual--even one employed with federal money--from expressing his views to the government as long as he does it on his own time. In fact, they will give employees new protection from pressures brought by employers to contribute to political activities. And the rules will still allow a contractor or grant recipient to provide technical information requested in writing by Congress or a government agency.
The new regulations strike us as fair and sensible on their face. What will bear watching is whether they are applied impartially among those organizations whose activities and opinions are preferred by the administration and those who are in disfavor.