Foundations on the Hill: What Should We Say?

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As foundations visit congressional offices over the next week, likely conversations will focus on Rep. Dave Camp’s (R-MI) tax plan and how his proposed changes would affect charitable contributions. No doubt this is a priority for some in the nonprofit sector. At the same time, there are other priorities that foundations should be addressing. Here are three additional topics that I hope foundations speak to.

The first is growing inequality in America, which has been a core concern for many foundations. We need to clearly articulate the problem: It is not that the One Percent has done well; it is that the other 99 percent have not. There are at least three things Congress can do to begin helping the 99 percent. First, it can increase funding for programs that help low-income individuals and families. From education to housing, too many programs have been cut so deeply that they cannot meet existing, let alone growing, demand. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center shows that there is widespread support across political parties for government intervention to address poverty.

Second, Congress should require everyone, including wealthy individuals and corporations, to pay their fair share in taxes so that we can afford these programs. In fact, that same Pew Research Center poll said that 54 percent of voters want to increase taxes on the wealthy to pay for aid to the poor. While Rep. Camp’s proposal deserves credit for closing many tax loopholes, he uses the savings to give the One Percent reduced taxes. The offshoring of jobs and taxes and other breaks for special interests need to end, and that money needs to be invested in getting America back to work.

The third thing Congress can do to address inequality is to focus on job creation and wages for low- and middle-income workers. According to the Economic Policy Institute, wage growth for the median worker between 1979 and 2012 saw an increase of just five percent, and all of that growth occurred in the late 1990s. Yet during that same period, productivity rose 63.8 percent. In fact, between 2002 and 2012 inflation-adjusted wages were stagnant or declined for the entire bottom 70 percent of wage earners.

To ensure broad-based wage growth, Congress should restore the collective and individual bargaining power of low- and middle-wage workers. At the least, Congress can increase the minimum wage, provide incentives for paid sick and family leave, and end workplace abuses such as wage theft and unpaid overtime. Congress should also renew the right to collective bargaining for higher wages, pass immigration reforms that carry labor protections, and address rising student debt. Finally, Congress needs to generate jobs, whether through addressing the growing infrastructure needs of the country or other approaches.

Beyond advocating for Congress to address inequality, foundations should also begin a conversation about the important role government can play in meeting the needs of communities across the country. We need to remind our elected leaders that philanthropy cannot replace the role of government and that government is part of the solution. In the aftermath of the government shutdown last fall, it is increasingly clear that this is not just a liberal or progressive vision. Conservatives, such as Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner, have developed a manifesto providing their vision for the role of government, which is far different than Grover Norquist’s notion of shrinking “government to the size where we can drown it in a bathtub.” In other words, there is a growing bipartisan agreement that we need a strong, flexible, efficient government to improve quality of life.

Finally, when foundations visit Congress, they should begin advocating for structural reforms to strengthen democracy. This includes everything from election administration to gerrymandering, from the corrupting influence money plays in politics to improving the way Congress operates. The voter-suppression efforts occurring in many states, for example, are eroding our democracy and introducing bias into our electoral system. Many reasonable structural improvements have been floated, including same-day registration, early-voting opportunities, and holding elections on days when most people don’t have to work. In fact, most recently a bipartisan presidential commission, chaired by Democrat Bob Bauer and Republican Ben Ginsburg, put forward reasonable solutions.

It won’t be easy to address these issues with Congress, because entrenched power begets entrenched power. Congress will do all it can to preserve the status quo. But it is our job to challenge the status quo and to demand a fully functioning democracy where election processes are fair and transparent, where everyone votes, and where politicians are not bought by the special interests.

While each foundation may have its own role to play in addressing these problems, we can join our voices in pursuit of change. Leaders such as Larry Kramer of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Bob Gallucci of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and Stephen Heintz of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund have already started to pave the way with calls to address dysfunction in our democracy.

Every grantmaker has a great deal at stake, whether we support social services, the arts, advocacy, education, or other causes, and whether our grant making is local, national, or international. We won’t reach any grand goals on our agenda if Washington doesn’t work, and we must use this opportunity to make Congress aware of what is at stake.


  • Joe Cordes

    Jasmine: An interesting development. Off hand, I don’t see a down side to this…or should I?