Can You Hear Me Now? Nonprofit Voices at the Supercommittee


It could be all for naught, but the latent power of the Congressional supercommittee, charged with slicing a trillion or more off the national deficit, is kind of enormous if certain factors play out. As we have noted before, we hope that the nonprofit sector is making a coherent and noticeable case to the supercommittee amid the hundreds of thousands of dissonant recommendations that have flooded in. And even if the sector does have a coherent, resonant message, will it be heard given the cacophony of monied interests laying siege to supercommittee members?

The importance to the sector isn’t simply because the supercommittee has a mandate to whack $1.2 trillion (through spending cuts and new revenues) by November 23. Think back to the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, popularly called the Simpson-Bowles Commission, after the two former senators who led the effort. The expectation was that the Commission, created by President Obama as a bipartisan effort to reach some budget consensus, would elevate above the strident political Armageddon that had enveloped Congressional budget debates—in part because of the wide respect for the two chairmen: former Wyoming Republican senator Alan Simpson and former Democratic White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles.

If that was the expectation, it failed, as President Obama quickly distanced himself from the Simpson/Bowles recommendations almost before they were publicly released. Perhaps he was justified in doing so, but the idea of this blue ribbon commission of sorts bypassing the budget stalemate clearly didn’t work.

In an op-ed in Politico, David Walker, the former U.S. Comptroller General and head of the General Accountability Office (GAO), as respected by both political parties as Simpson or Bowles, introduces an unexpected potential role for the supercommittee if it makes progress with its legislated mandate. After noting a couple of important recommendations for the supercommittee’s work plan, Walker added this last proposition: “The final objective of the committee’s recommendations should be to extend the special legislative process under which it is operating—to allow for even greater deficit-reduction progress in the next few years . . . For example, it could recommend extending its life or creating a new committee to make additional recommendations that meet a larger 10-year deficit-reduction target based on an agreed-upon ratio of spending reductions to revenue enhancements by a specific date.”

Maybe we’re misreading Walker’s implication, but it looks like he’s recommending a super-role for the supercommittee—giving it a cachet, lifespan, and potential influence to supersede some of the deliberative thinking that has been lacking between Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress. With the ever-worsening bipartisan budget and deficit standoff in Congress, there is an increasing sense that many people have the perspective of “a pox on both your houses” when it comes to the two national political parties. And Walker just finished second to Hillary Clinton as a potential third party candidate to run against Obama and his eventual Republican opponent in a poll of Politico readers, so his words carry weight.

If the supercommittee finds a way of extending and increasing its mandate, the already huge challenge for nonprofits will be increased geometrically. Currently unable in any sense to match the lobbying and advocacy muscle of well-heeled special interests in general, nonprofit sector leadership will face a special challenge if the supercommittee institutionalizes and moves toward permanence. It’s already almost impossible for advocates of any means to get to the supercommittee members and lay out a coherent agenda of reforms that would protect and enhance the role of the sector.

Imagine if the supercommittee becomes institutionalized and elevated up and out of the political dialogue. Will the supercommittee hear the voices of the nonprofit sector—particularly the smaller nonprofits, which some might say truly represent the “nonprofit wing of the nonprofit sector”—amid the megaphoned messages of corporate special interests?

Remember that Walker has been associated with the monied interests that tend to have a bigger voice than the typical nonprofit service–providing coterie. From 2008 until late 2010, he served as head of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, founded by—and named after—President Nixon’s Secretary of Commerce. With Walker at the helm, Peterson’s foundation has been a vigorous advocate on the side of reducing the deficit by major spending cuts, with a multimillion-dollar ad campaign featuring the imaginary political candidate Hugh Jidette (“huge debt”) running the nation’s economy into the ground with his profligate spending proposals.

Walker now runs his own operation, the Comeback America Initiative, with some heavyweight liberal and conservative players on the board, ranging from Jim Wallis (Sojourners) and Andy Stern (SEIU) on the left to Mel Martinez (former Republican senator from Florida and HUD Secretary under Bush I) on the right. Given the agenda laid out in Walker’s book Comeback America, it isn’t clear how much of a focus Walker and his associates have on the well being of the nonprofit sector and of its role as the nation’s delivery system for many public goods.

Who will the supercommittee listen to? Walker and Peterson probably, but in the end money talks . . . and you know what walks. According to recent news reports, the American Medical Association, for example, spent $7.3 million in the third quarter of this year in lobbying aimed at the supercommittee regarding changes the AMA wants in Medicare cost structures and reimbursements. Ninety-three special interest groups have made $300,000 in campaign contributions through their PACs to members of the supercommittee since it was formed, only a month ago—$111,500 of which came from health and pharmaceutical companies.

Because modifications to entitlements such as Medicaid and Medicare are likely to be on the supercommittee’s agenda, it is no surprise that health issues are such a focus for corporate lobbyists. Among the many health-oriented interests in the mix is the Hospital Corporation of America, which alone spent $210,000 in the third quarter lobbying the supercommittee.

Other sectors are also actively pitching and promoting. For example, the Association of American Universities and the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities have written to the supercommittee asking that their federal research funding—and subsidies such as Pell grants and federal student loans—be protected. It should surprise no one that the manufacturers of military equipment are lobbying the supercommittee, pitching the protection and expansion of Pentagon weapons systems as important for job creation and retention. And, unbelievably, one of the potent lobbying forces aiming at the supercommittee, especially committee member Jon Kyl (R-AZ), is the online gambling sector, with trade associations such as the American Gaming Association and the Poker Players Alliance hoping they can jujitsu the supercommittee into a position of recommending online gambling as part of its overall job- and revenue-generating plan.

Who is speaking for the nonprofit sector in the lobbying fray (other than nonprofit trade associations solely concerned about the industries they represent rather than the broader, cross-disciplinary nonprofit issues)? A few days ago, National Public Radio counted 619 corporations and groups that intended to lobby the supercommittee. On the list, addressing generic issues of concern broadly to the nonprofit sector is Independent Sector, and that’s largely it; nonprofit-friendly organizations such as the Advocacy Fund (formerly the Tides Advocacy Fund), the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, Volunteers of America, the National Council of La Raza, and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights—all with track records on generic nonprofit issues—will raise undoubtedly raise concerns with the supercommittee, but within the context of other issues such as human services funding (VOA) or civil rights (NCLR). The Sunlight Foundation’s database indicates that Independent Sector spent $10,000 in the third quarter lobbying the secretive legislative body, NCLR spent $30,000, and the Advocacy Fund spent $20,000.

Those are tiny figures compared to the massive amounts being spent by the largest players:









Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association
































American Nurses Association









Independent Sector’s agenda with the supercommittee appears to be tightly focused on protecting the charitable deduction, not just from a potential cap but from potential elimination, too. (IS’s website tells nonprofits to contact supercommittee members and warn them that charitable giving could drop by $7 billion if the deduction is completely eliminatedThe National Council on Nonprofits is promoting a sign-on “nonprofit community letter” calling for no changes to the “charitable giving incentive” as opposed specifically to the charitable deduction. It isn’t immediately clear exactly what the National Council envisions as the distinction between the “charitable giving incentive” and what it refers to as the “current-law charitable deduction,” perhaps because there are provisions in the law that provide tax credits as opposed to tax deductions for contributions or investments in certain kinds of activities typically relied on by nonprofits, such as the Low Income Housing Tax Credit, the historic tax credit (HTC), and perhaps others credits too (plus other incentives, such as the charitable IRA rollover).

There must be more to the nonprofit sector’s message than just charitable incentives or even more narrowly the charitable deduction. The nonprofit sector’s leadership organizations might be well advised to convene a process to generate a “nonprofit agenda” to present to the supercommittee. Some of the components of a nonprofit agenda were presaged in 2001 when OMB Watch, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, and the Advocacy Institute presented a twelve-point agenda to the incoming Bush Administration; several of the components are still valid for the supercommittee’s consideration today.

Given that there may be members of the supercommittee that don’t possess or utilize knowledge of and talent for macro- and microeconomics, the members will ultimately make decisions about the $1.2 trillion deficit reduction based on a mix of political calculus and personal values. On both scores, the nonprofit sector has to make a case for itself—and for the supercommittee’s consciousness of protecting the sector and its function in American society. That’s the “value” side of the equation—getting the supercommittee members to think about their actions against a lens of the importance of the nonprofit sector.  But there is also the program or spending part of the analysis.  What programs should the nonprofit sector be fighting to retain or even expand as the nation staggers out of the recession?  What should the nonprofit sector tell the supercommittee about the discretionary spending programs that must be saved to help the communities served by nonprofits? 

Aren’t programs to sustain the nonprofit sector as (or more) important than online gambling supported by poker players, the health damage created by users of the products of Lorillard Tobacco, and the arcane financial instruments promoted by Wall Street lobbyists? What will it take for the nonprofit sector to be heard—and what will the nonprofit sector have to say for itself?

  • Brooke Frost

    Excellent points about non-profits needing to focus on more than the charitable tax deduction issue. The challenge is the fragmentation of the sector, developing consensus on points to take forward, and people to do so.

  • Barry Toiv

    This article mentions the Association of American Universities and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities in a way that suggests these two associations are separate from the nonprofit community.

    Before I address the substance of the issues raised in the piece, I need to state that both associations represent nothing but nonprofit institutions. APLU represents only public universities; AAU represents only public and private research universities. All are nonprofits.

    Regarding the substance of the issues, the article correctly cites our joint letter ( calling on the Super Committee to pursue a large, balanced deficit reduction plan that focuses on entitlement spending and revenues and protects the nation’s investments in its future, such as education and research.

    However, we have also addressed the deduction for charitable contributions, but in a different context. We and several other higher education associations (all representing nonprofit colleges and universities) submitted testimony ( to the Senate Finance Committee on October 18 pointing out the importance of the deduction for encouraging charitable contributions that support financial aid, research, and education at colleges and universities. The statement concludes: “Now is not the time to make changes in the charitable deduction that would result in a loss of charitable support.”

    Thanks for this opportunity to respond.

    Barry Toiv
    Vice President for Public Affairs
    Association of American Universities


    (My apologies if this appears twice.)

  • Michael Wyland

    I’m not sure about this, but I susspect that the gaming industry is lobbying to have the supercommittee include provisions to legalize US-based online gaming as a new/renewed revenue source. not a target for tax subsidy.

    I spoke with a Federal Relations (i.e., lobbyist) for a billion-dollar nonprofit recently. He was expressing some concern that many believe, mistakenly, that a failure of the supercommittee to reach agreement, or a failure of Congress to endorse a supercommittee agreement, would result in immediate draconian budget cuts. In fact, according to this person, the cuts would not take effect until 2013, safely after the 2012 elections. This makes a more than a little sense, since no incumbent wants to defend cuts to their district’s favorite programs while campaigning for re-election.

  • rick cohen

    Yes, that is exactly what the gaming industry is lobbying for, to get their industry (online gambling) approved through the supercommittee because it helps with revenues, not that it would get subsidies. If I conveyed something other than that, I apologize, but I meant exactly what you wrote.

    Re the timing of the supercommittee cuts, yes, they take effect in 2013. We do have a dynamic in this country of major legislative, tax, and budget items scheduled for implementation after the next electoral cycle.

  • rick cohen

    Thank you for your comment. Yes, we know that these associations (AAU and APLU) are nonprofits, but they are focused on their industry issues, not focused on the broader health of the nonprofit sector writ large. Many of the entities in the NPR/Sunlight list of supercommittee lobbyists were nonprofit associations, and like your letter, they will add items that have broader impact such as the charitable deduction as an issue, but only IS, NCN, and a few others are focused on issues concerning nonprofits as nonprofits, not nonprofits as schools of higher education, nonprofits as hospitals, etc. Thanks for reading!