UNDER A barrage of protest from corporations, trade associations and nonprofit organizations, the administration has withdrawn proposed regulations limiting the use of federal money for political advocacy. Whatever else this remarkably broad coalition of interests has shown about the wisdom of the regulations, it has amply demonstrated that federal money does pay for a great deal of activity that, by ordinary standards of discourse, would be described as lobbying.
There is room for argument about the specifics of the administration's proposals. The definition of political advocacy may be too vague, the restrictions on sharing of equipment and administrative functions may be too tight, and there may be other comparable flaws. OMB has always suggested that there was room for compromise on details. But this is not the level at which the debate has been carried on.
Instead, the regulations have been characterized as an infringement of free speech, an assault on "voluntary" charity (one-third of which, according to its advocates, is now paid for by the taxpayer), and a threat to national security. "If, as this regulation implies, private-sector lobbying is bad," one letter we received noted darkly, "then we have the wrong form of government."
The rules in question, however, make no judgment about the merits of private-sector lobbying. They simply require that it be truly private. Indeed, beneath this adamant opposition, there is a good deal of agreement about the rules' objectives. There is no disputing that, since 1919, it has been a crime to use federal money to influence legislation unless Congress expressly allows it. The nonprofit organizations are, moreover, quite willing to curb lobbying by defense contractors. And the defense industry doesn't turn a hair when it's a question of "defunding the left." It's just that no group likes to have the rule applied in its own case, which, you will readily understand, is quite distinguishable in terms of its inherent worthiness and value to the nation.
Well, you can't have it both ways. If Congress wants to support a particular form of advocacy, it can stand up and vote money for that purpose and there will be no argument. But if, instead, it wants to buy missiles or run day-care centers or carry on health research, the organizations that are given money for those purposes have no right to use that money for any other activities--not for writing letters to their relatives or for buying advertisements or for petitioning Congress to appropriate more money for their chosen activities, however worthy.
Like everyone else in the country, the people who work for government contractors and grant recipients are quite free to express their views in any way they see fit--as long as they do it on their own time and with their own money. That's a sound rule. When OMB issues its revised regulations, the affected organizations should spend their time figuring out how best to enforce them.