Getting Money Under the Table

I’m about to get into a lot of trouble.

Little did I know when I agreed to write a column for Youth Today that I’d make a lot of my friends mad at me. Or that I’d have to disclose aspects of my life most writers never reveal.

For this story to make any sense, I have to give you my political background. I’m a true blue conservative Republican. Top that with evangelical Christian – part of the right-wing conspiracy, so to speak. So far, my friends are OK with this column.

When the Democrats controlled Congress – as they did for most of about 40 years, starting in the 1950s – I always thought it was wrong that nonprofits that were their favorites got special privileges, especially money. To me, this was nothing more than privilege and even bordered on graft. Important and powerful members of Congress could give money to “worthy charities,” most often in their districts or states, if the organizations were philosophically in agreement with the senator or representative.

When the Republicans took over in 1994, I was smiling like a Cheshire cat, knowing my party would end this horrible practice of “earmarking” funds for favored organizations without competitive bidding.

Now, my friends are nervous.

Certainly, the fiscally responsible Republicans realized these are public monies that should be competed for, or at the very least voted on publicly. My party would understand that every dollar given directly by members of Congress to a charity, regardless of how good that charity was, meant one less dollar for groups competing openly for public taxpayer funds.

This practice must end. President Bush is championing a community- and faith-based initiative, trying to get federal dollars to the grassroots, where the needs are the greatest. These earmarks will increasingly soak up discretionary money and make his goal and his promise to these groups nearly impossible to achieve.

Here’s how congressional intent is hurt by earmarking: Congress establishes programs and appropriates money to address social needs. When funds within these programs are predesignated for certain organizations through earmarks, it greatly impairs the ability of career employees to plan for how to get the greatest effects through federal funding. What’s more, groups that compete for the fewer remaining dollars find the competition extremely fierce.

Who wins? Those who are the most sophisticated about federal politicking. Who loses? Those who are new to it – dare I say, such groups as those from the faith community and communities of color and small organizations that are doing great work. Earmarking, which requires connections that many of these groups don’t have, puts them at an even greater disadvantage.

This is a growing problem, with few in power having the fortitude to step forward to stop it.

The lobbyists and professional fund-raisers have seized upon this opportunity to fatten their wallets, promising small, increasingly Republican-friendly nonprofits an easy way to get big bucks. It’s really disgusting. They write their contracts with these nonprofits cleverly, to stay within the law, but in the end, they are milking the public of valuable dollars that would otherwise go to help those in greatest need.

The answer, I’ve learned, is not to hope your party wins control of Congress. Rather, it is to support members of Congress, regardless of party affiliation, who have the integrity to say this practice is wrong. Only Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) have taken such a stand in the Senate, and Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) in the House.

Bush agrees that all public money should be competed for publicly. We should encourage him to make this a bigger public issue. But Congress keeps stuffing the federal budget with even more earmarks. The next time you’re in contact with your members of Congress, explain why this practice is so harmful. It will at least show them not everyone tries to take money under the table.

As the head of an intermediary organization under the Compassion Capital Fund, I would like to tell the thousands of small, faith-based and community organizations we mentor that they’ll be playing on a level playing field when they submit proposals in response to a federal grant competition. I can’t. Some worthy groups will be denied funding because earmarks have soaked up money, and that saddens me.

If I have any friends left after they’ve read this, I hope they re-think this horrible practice and join with us to stop it.

Shepherd Smith is president of the Institute for Youth Development, based in Sterling, Va.


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