Defunding the Left

For years, "defunding the left" has been an idea that has resonated deeply with conservatives. Now that Republicans have control of the White House and Congress, it's an idea whose time may be coming faster than you think. President Bush's initiative to move government services to faith-based organizations and the battle over the nomination of Attorney General John Ashcroft may provide the necessary trigger to turn the right's twenty-plus-year pipedream into a reality.

Terrence Scanlon, president of the Capital Research Center (CRC), and Mark R. Levin, head of the Landmark Legal Foundation are two longtime conservative activists on the front lines of this fight.

Scanlon's Capital Research Center, founded in 1984, is one of the lesser-known Washington, DC-based think tanks that serves as a conservative watchdog over so-called liberal/left nonprofit philanthropic institutions. CRC's analyzes how "those organizations with tax-exempt, tax-deductible -- and sometimes tax dollars -- mix advocacy and 'direct action' to promote their own vision of the public interest." CRC also looks at how closely individuals in the corporate and foundation sectors are sticking to the "donor intent" of the founders of these corporations.

In mid-February, Scanlon told a packed house at the 28th annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) that "for the first time we have an opportunity to go after these [liberal nonprofit] groups and take away their federal money." Conservative News Service (CNS) reported that in his remarks, Scanlon named several organizations that are receiving federal funding including the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). He told the gathering that the "AARP received $73 million in federal grants in 1999, 73 million of your tax dollars went to the AARP. Most of this money came from the Labor Department for job training programs for seniors."

Scanlon pointed to what he considered the most "egregious" example of a group getting federal funds -- the National Council of Senior Citizens (NCSC). Founded in 1960 during the Kennedy-Johnson campaign, Scanlon said that NCSC "were well known four years ago during the Hillary Clinton health care debate when they were lobbying for national health care. Their budget is 96 percent federally funded. If it were not for federal dollars there would be no National Council for Senior Citizens."

Mark R, Levin, head of the Landmark Legal Foundation has been doing more than giving speeches about challenging federal funding of liberal non-profit groups. During the first week in February, Landmark announced the formation of its "501-C Project" which intends to "ensure that liberal non-profit organizations that lobby against presidential appointments comply with U.S. tax and lobbying laws."

The Unification Church-owned Washington Times reported that Landmark has asked the Internal Revenue Service "to investigate accusations that several civil rights groups and other nonprofit organizations violated their federal tax-exempt status by participating in lobbying efforts against the nomination of John Ashcroft as attorney general."

According to Levin: "Published reports reveal that scores of liberal, 501(c) tax-exempt groups spent the last month, and hundreds of thousands of dollars, in a well-coordinated and highly organized lobbying campaign against the Ashcroft nomination. They have also announced that they will lobby against future nominees who they consider too conservative. The IRS must look at these activities very carefully to ensure that these organizations are not skirting the law or failing to pay their taxes."

Levin pointed to a January 9 meeting of organizations opposed to Ashcroft's nomination, held at the headquarters of the American Association of University Women. Called by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, among the groups Levin identified as present were the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Sierra Club, Planned Parenthood, the National Organization for Women's Legal Defense and Education Fund, the National Education Association and the National Black Women's Health Project.

This was one of several complaints with federal agencies that Landmark has filed during the past few months. They filed a complaint with the IRS and the Federal Election Commission (FEC) against one of the right's perennial targets, the National Education Association. Over the years, Landmark has butted heads with the NEA particularly around the issue of school vouchers in Wisconsin, where Landmark provided legal support for pro-voucher organizations.

Levin claims the teachers union is using millions of dollars in unreported tax-exempt funds to influence the outcome of political races. According to its website, the complaint, part of the its Quality Schools 2001 initiative, claims that "the last several NEA Form 990 federal tax returns, submitted to the IRS under penalty of perjury, disclose no political expenditures whatsoever. The NEA and several of its affiliates have also failed to disclose the full extent of their political activities to the Federal Election Commission (FEC)."

Landmark is asking these government agencies to "initiate comprehensive investigations of the NEA's political activities and expenditures to determine whether it has violated federal tax and campaign laws. Landmark is also asking the IRS to consider whether the NEA's tax-exempt status should be revoked, and whether the IRS and the FEC should impose fines and penalties on the NEA."

Landmark was founded in 1976, as the Great Plains Legal Foundation with an office in Kansas City, Mo. (it also has an office in Herndon, Va.) Its mission is to provide litigation and legal aid to conservatives and conservative causes. In 1995, taking advantage of the Republican takeover of the House, Landmark stitched together a plan called "Beyond the First 100 Days: A Legal Reform Plan for the 104th Congress," which put forward strict conservative ideas in several areas including antitrust, civil justice, criminal justice, and private property rights.

"Defunding the left" is not a new project for conservatives. (It should be noted that for conservatives, "left" includes any organizations to the right of Attila the Hunt.) Almost eighteen years ago, longtime muckraker James Ridgeway wrote about the onslaught against various non-profit organizations in the Village Voice. He noted that the campaign was "being carried out through direct-mail solicitation‚ in the pages of Conservative Digest‚ and in other right-wing publications‚ and by researchers and propagandists for such conservative think tanks as the Heritage Foundation."

Flash forward two decades and the defunding crowd's planets are moving closer toward alignment. According to CNS, Terrence Scanlon praised Senator Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) for "attempting to take away federal funding from these non-profits during the last congressional session." Although Gregg lost that battle, Scanlon believes that the Senator's efforts, combined with the GOP's control over the government, might be the prelude to success. Since most heads of government agencies should be conservative, "for the first time we have an opportunity to go after these groups and take away their federal money," he told the aroused crowd. "Let's do it," he bellowed, urging his audience to go back home and mobilize at the grassroots in order to realize their twenty-plus-year dream of defunding the left.

Bill Berkowitz is an Oakland-based freelance journalist covering the Religious Right and related conservative movements. Contact him via e-mail at


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