Educating the New (Very Homegrown) Congressional Class

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New Congress

November 4th ushered in a new class of legislators who will march through the halls of Congress. Because of the historic defeat suffered by Democrats, Republicans will now hold 53 seats in the U.S. Senate, assuming Dan Sullivan is finally declared the winner over Mike Begich in Alaska; the Democrats will hold 46, assuming a target=”_blank” href=””>Mark Warner is declared the victor over Ed Gillespie and one counts independents Bernie Sanders (VT) and Angus King (ME) in with the Democrats; and we will all wait for a runoff in Louisiana to determine Mary Landrieu’s fate—but she has won runoffs twice before. In the House, Republicans have gained at least 13 more seats to outnumber Democrats 243 to 179, with 13 more either relatively undecided or heading to recounts or runoffs.

That’s the number count. The challenge for pundits is to figure out how the new Republican legislators might stand on reproductive rights (they’re just about all nominally right-to-lifers), immigration reform (they generally oppose “legalization”), the Affordable Care Act (they want to repeal it), and other key issues of the day, even if they are unlikely to make much headway along those lines against the preferences of the American public and even their own 2016-thinking Republican Party leadership.

For nonprofits, the issues may be all that and more. How much do the new Republican members of the House and Senate know about nonprofits? How much personal, tactile interaction have they had with nonprofits?

When nonprofit activists and lobbyists march to Capitol Hill when gathered by trade associations such as the Council on Foundations, the National Council of Nonprofits, Independent Sector, and others, what kind of understanding of nonprofit issues and concerns are they likely to encounter from the likes of senator-elect Joni Ernst who will be in the seat once occupied by Iowa a target=”_blank” href=””>Senator Tom Harkin, the legislator who introduced and led the passage of the a target=”_blank” href=”″>Americans with Disabilities Act a quarter-century ago and, on his way out of office, introduced the a target=”_blank” href=”″>Minimum Wage Fairness Act to increase the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour? Or from Republican Bruce Poliquin, who will be taking the Maine 2nd Congressional District seat once held by Democrat Mike Michaud, one of only a handful of members of Congress to be openly LGBT? Or from senator-elect James Lankford, who will take the place of fellow Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn, who was leading a vigorous effort to a target=”_blank” href=”policysocial-context/22945-sen-coburn-challenges-nfl-s-tax-exempt-status.html”>strip the National Football League and other professional sports leagues of their 501(c)(6) status?

A review of the nonprofit backgrounds and credentials of the incoming class of Republican senators and representatives suggests that the nonprofit sector will face one big task of education about the functions, needs, and challenges of public charities and private foundations. Although Democrats may view the incoming Republicans as creatures of Koch- and Adelson-type billionaires, their biographies are in large measure those of small-town Main Streets—the business class that Sinclair Lewis portrayed through Babbitt, the Zenith real estate broker, and Will Kennicott of Gopher Prairie in Main Street. In a way, nonprofits are going to have to address many of these new legislators in the way that they see themselves: hard-working, self-made men (and a very few women) with, strikingly, very limited engagement in and exposure to nonprofits, at least on paper. Presumably, as small businesspeople, they give to local charities, but their business identities as insurance agents, real estate brokers, pharmacists, warehousing and trucking company owners, even software professionals and cybersecurity consultants, are very much their primary expressions of their civic values.

Their campaign websites in general contained relatively little of their nonprofit sector engagements, sometimes less than other biographical sources on them revealed, as though promoting their civic activism through nonprofits was not seen as something that would win much in the way of plaudits. Their small business values by and large substitute for expressions of civic engagement through the value structure of nonprofits.

Where nonprofits made it into their campaign bios, the nonprofits themselves tended to be traditional and Main Street themselves: the Boy Scouts (Bob Dold, representing the Illinois 10th CD, has been a longtime scoutmaster, and his campaign website notes that the “ideals of the Eagle Scouts – integrity, personal responsibility and community leadership—describe Bob’s personal perspective and compelled him to run for public office”), the Boys & Girls Clubs (Dold has also chaired the Lake County Boys & Girls Club board), the Little League (Poliquin volunteers as a Little League coach as his “way to give back to the next generation of Mainers, teaching them the values of teamwork and sacrifice”), other sports-related groups (Cresent Hardy of Nevada’s 4th CD co-founded Golf Fore Kids; John Katko, representing New York’s 24th CD in Syracuse, has coached youth hockey through the Camillus Youth Hockey Association; and Carlos Curbelo in Florida’s 26th CD co-founded Centre Court Charities, which runs summer basketball leagues in the Miami area), and plenty of fraternal organizations (for example, Mike Rounds, the incoming senator from South Dakota, is an Exalted Ruler of the Pierre Elks Lodge and a member of the Knights of Columbus and Ducks Unlimited).

As small business types, these new legislators also show up in municipal improvement organizations—Evan Jenkins of West Virginia’s 3rd CD serving as an officer of Huntington Main Street; Ryan Costello of Pennsylvania’s 6th in a handful of Chester County economic development organizations; French Hill from the 2nd CD in Arkansas serving as an officer of the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce, not untypical for a local bank director; and Doug Ose from California’s 7th in the Sacramento area having been active in a number of Chambers of Commerce.

Few of the incoming Republicans seem to have had much direct engagement as board members or employees of direct service organizations, particularly those serving the poor and disadvantaged. The campaign website for Jenkins reported that he and his wife are “leading an effort to establish a special facility to care for newborn infants suffering drug withdrawal from prenatal exposure.” Taking over Frank Wolf’s seat in Virginia’s 10th CD, Barbara Comstock’s website noted that she serves on the board of ChildHelp, a nonprofit that fights child abuse. Elected to Iowa’s 3rd CD, Dave Young was a daycare volunteer for disabled youth at Access Ministry from 1999 to 2001. One of the first jobs held by David Perdue, who will be the new senator from Georgia, was in Headstart, though it must have been a long time ago, given his extensive business resume with years of senior positions at Reebok, Dollar General, and other major businesses.

A little more typical are involvements in scholarship organizations—Dave Brat, who upset Eric Cantor in Virginia’s 7th CD as an officer with the Great Aspirations Scholarship Program; Nevada’s Hardy, who has been engaged with the Legacy of Higher Learning and Talent Development organization, providing college scholarships to students from southern Nevada; and Poliquin on the board of the Alfond Scholarship Foundation.

But these new members of Congress are for the most part people who have stayed home, grown, and in this election, often emerged in their own Grover’s Corners community. A number of these candidates were born and raised in the districts that they will now represent, sometimes the descendants of multiple generations: incoming senator Tom Cotton as a sixth-generation Arkansan, incoming senator Cory Gardner as a fifth-generation Coloradan, Hardy a fifth-generation resident of Mesquite, Poliquin a third-generation Central Mainer (though he made his business money in Chicago), and incoming senator Steve Daines a fifth-generation Montanan, though he was born in California. They cite with great pride their lives growing up “walking beans,” “raising hogs,” or “detasseling corn” on their families’ farms, many noting that they married their high school or college sweethearts. (Perdue has known his wife since the first grade.) The average American moves every five years, but by and large, these new members of Congress are hometowners (or homestaters). Almost 36 million Americans over the age of one moved between 2012 and 2013, in many ways exposing themselves to the diversity of the American population, its varying needs and aspirations and fears. That also means appreciating the multitude of vital roles that nonprofits play across America, which might be quite different than the modest geographic array of nonprofit engagements shown in these politicians’ campaign biographies.

To be sure, the nonprofit involvements of some of these incoming legislators align with their professional work identities: Incoming Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse was president of his hometown Midland University and was secretary of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Nebraska; incoming Oklahoma senator James Lankford, previously a student ministries and evangelism specialist for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, directed youth programming at the Falls Creek Baptist Conference Center, the largest Christian camp in the U.S., until he decided to run for the senate; and forester and engineer Bruce Westerman, the Republican who will occupy the seat of the 2nd CD in southwest Arkansas (which includes Bill Clinton’s childhood home in Hope), served on the boards of the Arkansas Forestry Association and the Arkansas chapter of the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineering.

There are exceptions from these bios that suggest for some a more expansive view of things. The stay-at-home character of many of these new elected doesn’t apply to native San Antonian Will Hurd of the 23rd CD in Texas, who spent several years working for the Central Intelligence Agency doing undercover work, including in Afghanistan. It probably doesn’t apply to Barbara Comstock who, while serving on the board of friends of Clemyjontri Park in Virginia, also functioned as a national lobbyist for Blank Rome LLP and then her own lobbying firm helping Scooter Libby, Tom DeLay, and Carnival Cruise Lines through various problems. Elise Stefanik, elected to the 21st CD of New York in the Plattsburgh area, though having worked for her family’s plywood products business, was director of communications for the Foreign Policy Initiative which reportedly launched a coalition of think tanks “warning of the dangers of the sequester.” New Jersey’s Tom MacArthur, from the insurance business, elected to serve New Jersey’s 7th CD, has a foundation with his wife (with roughly $8.5 million assets) that has assisted a number of charities in New Jersey and around the world, including World Vision, Samaritan’s Purse, New Jersey Aids Services, the Rafiki Foundation, and several others—hardly a parochial list of beneficiaries.

Nonetheless, there is a palpable sense from exploring the nonprofit identities and engagements of the new Republican legislators of a substantial educational task ahead for nonprofits in connecting to this group. Throughout the biographies and the regular stump speeches of Mia Love, who will be in Congress serving Utah’s 4th Congressional District, there is repeated reference to her father’s admonition: “Mia, your mother and I never took a handout. You will not be a burden to society. You will give back.” French Hill describes his founding of Little Rock’s Delta Trust and Bank “as an idea [he] sketched out on the back of a napkin and built…into a successful enterprise as a result of hard work, not government handouts or bailouts.” The lack of connection to nonprofits that serve the poor, that provide assistance through services and support—and as needed, cash, despite the critiques of Sasse and others of “entitlement spending” or of Hardy channeling Ronald Reagan to criticize people who drive Escalades in “welfare districts”—and advocate for (and with) the poor is pretty evident.

The challenge for nonprofits ought to be clear. For these new legislators, when it comes to the work of modern nonprofits in the range of their advocacy and service roles, the educational process might need to start with the basics: What are nonprofits? How do they function? How do they deliver on their missions? What is the necessary, fundamental relationship between nonprofits and government for both to operate successfully in addressing human need? The messaging and education will require moving these new Republican legislators out of their comfort zones to grapple with the diversity of nonprofits and the communities they represent around the nation. Remember, Babbitt had a fling with Bohemian life and “liberal” thoughts, but then frightened himself and went back to safe, Zenith conformity. Nonprofits will have to educate carefully but persistently to get this new class of legislators to appreciate what the modern nonprofit sector needs and wants today.

  • mila kaahanui

    With a Republican-dominated congress, Hawaii non-profits have compelling reasons to be concerned. Rolling back funding for federal anti-poverty programs will result in huge impact to the seriously marginalized disadvantaged communities, particularly in rural counties. What can we do?