What Should Be Asked at the First Presidential Debate

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September 26, 2012; Source: Politico

We’re only one day away from the first of three presidential debates between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Both have been practicing with their opposing candidate stand-ins. Politico’s James Hohmann suggests a few good questions that moderator Jim Lehrer might ask the two candidates.

Hohmann suggests that Obama explain why he didn’t push for a bigger stimulus package in 2009, as many liberal economists recommended at the time, whether he overestimated his ability to bridge partisan divides in Washington, why he has done so little to help families facing mortgage foreclosure, whether he is talking out of both sides of his mouth when he talks about no changes to entitlements as he puts changes in Social Security on the table for negotiations, and why he hasn’t shown any leadership on gun control even after the Rep. Gabby Giffords and Aurora, Colo. shootings.

For Mitt Romney, Hohmann wants him to name at least one specific tax loophole he would eliminate to help balance the budget, how he would figure out how to keep and pay for the popular but expensive parts of health care reform (such as no preexisting conditions) while getting rid of other pieces of the law, why he made Paul Ryan give him more years of tax returns than he is willing to disclose to voters, how he justifies paying a lower tax rate than most of middle income American taxpayers, and what three things he disagrees with in Ryan’s budget.

All good questions, but what questions would nonprofits stick onto the debate docket? We have several questions we would ask the candidates:

  • The Tax Exempt/Government Entities (TEGE) division of the IRS has historically been underfunded and unable to do the kind of monitoring and oversight needed to enforce nonprofit laws and regs. What would you do to ensure that the TEGE division is funded to do the job it is supposed to do?
  • Foundations often spend the minimum proportion of their tax-exempt assets required by law and a proportion of that goes for foundation administrative costs. What would you do to get more foundation money into the hands of charities?
  • A third or more of nonprofit revenues come from government sources, but government funding for nonprofit service providers is threatened by the across-the-board formula cuts of sequestration. How would you protect nonprofit service providers from the impact of devastating cuts to federal funds and to federal pass-through funds administered by state and local government agencies?
  • How do you propose to bolster local community governance and control of nonprofits as they respond to pressures and incentives to “scale up?”
  • Moneyed interests armed with the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision have been using 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations as avenues for secretly funding partisan political campaign activities. Would you—and if so, how would you—compel donor disclosure in 501(c)(4) organizations?
  • Even when the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is fully implemented, there will be tens of millions of people in this country without health insurance coverage. What would you do to provide for health care coverage for people who would not be covered by the ACA, those who typically end up being served by nonprofit clinics and other nonprofit health providers?

Through a nonprofit lens, what would you ask of the two presidential debaters if you were in Jim Lehrer’s seat on Wednesday night?—Rick Cohen

  • Jim Scheibel

    Extra!, the magazine published by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, found that out of 10,489 campaign stories over six months, only seventeen addressed poverty in a substantial way. 15% of our population, meaning 46.2 live below the poverty line. Mr. Presidet, Governor Romney, what would you do to address poverty?

  • Regina Birdsell

    1:5 children are going hungry, unable to learn, unemployment is a 11% as their parents want to go back to work, corporate executives are seeing record salaries, board members keep rewarding bad behavior while regulators look the other way. Our candidates are fighting over tax cuts and spending millions on advertising, making broadcasters rich yet schools can’t afford books. Elementary school children are taught to take turns, listen before speaking, share your toys, try your best. How do we get the candidates and then Congress to give those skills a try?

  • Margot H Knight

    Dramatic increases in college tuition and a crushing student debt burden are obstacles to the economic prosperity of our young people. What will you do to curb abuses by private sector colleges whose owners profit from government-backed students’ loans yet offer little in the way of marketable skills and/or job placement assistance?

  • rick cohen

    Great question!

  • rick cohen

    that may be toughest question, i haven’t seen much of that skill among politicians of recent vintage

  • rick cohen

    Hi Jim: I raised that issue in this newswire — http://www.nonprofitquarterly.org/policysocial-context/21078-candidates-46-million-americans-in-poverty-discuss.html — as something the nonprofit sector should be asking of all politicians. We’ll see if Lehrer asks it tomorrow. Thanks for the numbers.

  • Theresa G

    This probably doesn’t qualify as being in the “nonprofit lens,” because the infamous THEY are making money off of it, but the average American certainly isn’t making any sort of profit from the skyrocketing prices, people running nonprofit businesses having to move people/products from point A to point B generally use a car or truck for transport, so…

    What I would ask of the two presidential debaters if I were in Jim Lehrer’s seat on Wednesday night?:
    What are you going to do to lower gas/diesel prices (for cars/trucks), and how soon?

    Too many people have told me, NOTHING – they will do NOTHING, and THAT question will NEVER be asked because the office of the President has nothing to do with it.

  • Kurtis Smith

    American faith-based charities, their volunteers and donations, have historically led the fight against social problems across America and the world. What will you do to encourage continuing faith-based volunteerism and giving among Americans?

  • Tom Snyder

    President Obama:

    Why did so many of your “stimulus” dollars go to unworthy places like Solyndra and other leftist boondoggles?