What would the federal government look like if it had programs that “got” the nonprofit sector?  Not programs that simply funded nonprofits, but initiatives designed by members of Congress who understood what the nonprofit sector can bring to the table that government and for-profit social entrepreneurs cannot, programs  built on the inherent strengths and capacities of the nonprofit sector.

It is spoken of so rarely it’s like a dirty secret, but despite all the rhetoric promoting public-private partnerships, nonprofits often have to fight their way into federal programs that should be ready-made for them, or battle to hold their precarious toeholds in federal programs while other players shoulder their way into larger and larger pieces of the federal program geography – as happened when public housing authorities successfully lobbied Congress to guarantee that they received at least 50 percent of the program dollars awarded to the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s “Choice Neighborhoods” program so that nonprofits wouldn’t receive the lion’s share.

What if we had a Congress whose members crafted legislation that reflected what the government believed the nonprofit sector could legitimately and appropriately deliver?  Occasionally, though increasingly rarely, some intrepid legislators propose bills that do just that.  Here is a sample of pending legislation likely to go nowhere in the 112th Congress, not only because of nation’s imploding federal budget and exploding national deficit, not even because of the gridlock between Republicans and Democrats, but because so few national legislators seem to have an understanding of nonprofits that reaches deeper than “I (heart) nonprofits” platitudes.

H.R. 709:  This bill, the Urban Revitalization and Livable Communities Act, was introduced in February to authorize HUD to make grants to local governments for park and recreation programs and services.  It was sponsored by Albio Sires, the Congressman for New Jersey’s 13th District, which includes most of Hudson County (Sires is from West New York) and absorbed the 14th District (after the last redistricting.  It would be hard to find a more demographically dense region in the nation.  A prime Hudson County example is in Jersey City: Thirty years ago, kids played baseball in a field on top of a toxic chromium dump at the site of the now-demolished Roosevelt Stadium, where today the gated (and  hill-less) Society Hill community at Droyer’s Point stands.  Poor kids in most sardine-packed Hudson County neighborhoods have no access to recreational facilities like Society Hill’s tennis and basketball courts, and that prompted Sires to act.  Not only does his bill call for extensive collaboration between city governments and community-based nonprofits, Section 7 allows localities’ grants to “be transferred in whole or in part to private nonprofit agencies, provided that assisted recreational areas and facilities owned or managed by such private nonprofit agencies offer recreation opportunities to the general population within the jurisdictional boundaries.”  The bill has been sitting in committee since March. 

H.R. 1238:  Anchored by the city of Toledo, Ohio’s 9th District has one of the highest foreclosure rates in the state: one out of every 249 homes in the city and one out of every 348 in the metro area, compared with one out of every 586 homes statewide. Representative Marcie Kaptur has watched her district and neighboring cities such as Cleveland and Youngstown serve as epicenters for the mortgage foreclosure crisis, shadowed only slightly by the raging foreclosure rates of California, Arizona, and Nevada.  Kaptur’s Aiding Those Facing Foreclosure Act of 2011 would allow the Secretary of the Treasury to take unobligated funds from the Troubled Asset Relief Program (from the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008) and use them “to provide assistance to nonprofit counseling intermediaries and nonprofit legal organizations to provide legal assistance to homeowners of owner-occupied homes consisting of from one to four dwelling units who have mortgages on such homes that are in default or delinquency [or] in danger of default or delinquency.”  Kaptur knows as well as anyone how indispensible nonprofit activism has been in alleviating the foreclosure crisis in northern Ohio; it has become a model for the rest of America, and a success story for a nation whose political leaders from the White House down have shown scant will to force banks and other mortgage holders to write down homeowners’ indebtedness.  Since TARP billions were distributed to the too-big-to-fail banks – which took the funds without increasing their lending activities –Kaptur’s idea of capturing unobligated funds for the victims of bank lending practices makes sense.  The bill has languished in committee since May. 

H.R. 3114:  The proposed Civic Justice Corps Act of 2011 would authorize the attorney general to give three-year grants to national nonprofit intermediaries to deliver (or pay others to deliver) “education and work experience to court-involved, formerly incarcerated, and otherwise disadvantaged youth and young adults between the ages of 16 and 25.”  Sponsored by Representative Nydia Velázquez, who represents parts of Brooklyn, lower Manhattan and Queens, the bill points out: “Nearly 70 percent of youth in residential facilities have been adjudicated for nonviolent offenses and could be safely managed within their communities. The most effective programs at reducing recidivism rates and promoting positive life outcomes for youth are administered within communities, outside of the criminal juvenile justice system.”  The bill was introduced in early October, but its prospects for success are already questionable due to the political and budgetary gridlock on Capitol Hill.

S. 977: The Fighting Gangs and Empowering Youth Act of 2011 was introduced by New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez, formerly the mayor of Union City, New Jersey, another Hudson County municipality.  According to the New Jersey State Police’s 2007 report on gang activity, Union City had seven active street gangs, including the Latin Kings, the MS-13, the Vatos Locos, Dominicans Don’t Play, and others.  Jersey City, Newark, Passaic, Atlantic City, and Dover each reported nine active street gangs, Plainfield, Long Branch, and New Brunswick reported eight active street gangs.  Both Jersey and Newark reported activity by the Bloods and the Crips.  In 2010, Union City’s murder rate leaped to 11.3 per 100,000 from between 1.5 and 1.6 per 100,000 from 2006 to 2009, something that the former no-nonsense mayor of Union City would stand for.  Menendez’s bill encourages the attorney general to make grants to nonprofit and faith-based organizations, as well as public agencies, for innovative approaches for dealing with criminal gangs.  The bill adds provisions to the Public and Assisted Housing Gang Elimination Act of 2010, which authorized HUD grants to public housing authorities and to nonprofit owners of federally assisted housing to address gang-related crime problems. It further builds on clear nonprofit roles by reauthorizing after-school programs and programs for workplace and community transition training for incarcerated youth offenders.  The bill, with only one cosponsor, has been in committee since May.

H.R. 2963:  Congressman Jose Serrano of New York’s 16th District introduced a bill in September to authorize HUD to give grants to nonprofits that can provide specialized housing and services who are primary caregivers to children.  According to the Census Bureau, 4.9 million children, roughly 7 percent of the total number in the country, live in grandparent-headed households; another 1.9 million live in households headed by other family members.  It may be a labor of love, but 20 percent of child-raising grandparents are poor, and many need financial help and other assistance.  Serrano’s tiny, $20 million program would provide up to five grants to nonprofits on a competitive basis for Fiscal Years 2012 through 2016.  The bill currently sits in the House Subcommittee on Insurance, Housing and Community Opportunity.

Other nonprofit-friendly bills stagnating in conference come from the likes of Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, who are among the national politicians who seem to appreciate what nonprofits can do.  However, there are occasional feints in the other direction. 

The most notable anti-nonprofit legislation is H.R. 2774, a short and not-so-sweet bill from Congressman Austin Scott of Georgia that reads, “Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembledThat the Legal Services Corporation Act is repealed.”  Scott’s bill would eliminate a vital American nonprofit instrument, the Legal Services Corporation, that helps everyone from veterans to domestic violence victims find legal aid.  However, Scott’s probity on the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) is suspect.  According to Dana Milbank of the Washington Post, Scott moved to erase Legal Services from the nonprofit infrastructure only three days after it became known that an LSC affiliate had successfully sued Hamilton Growers in Georgia, which was cited by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for giving work hours and favorable assignments to lower-paid H2-A guest workers rather than U.S. workers.  Scott’s tactic undermines the nonprofit sector — and U.S. workers — to do a favor for a major for-profit employer in his district that had proven disreputable labor practices.  Despite its brevity, Scott’s bill has picked up ten cosponsors since its introduction in August, just about all of them Tea Party favorites like Scott himself, some of whom are presumably unaware of the backstory. 

Some national nonprofit “leadership” organizations seem to think the advocacy agenda they have with Congress starts and ends with the charitable tax deduction and other incentives for charitable and philanthropic giving.  It might be necessary for them to dig into the substance of program-specific legislation to see how Congress, and the White House, could advance the role of nonprofits in forging America’s social progress--and, if they don’t pay attention, how some bills could undermine the important functions that nonprofits can and should fill in partnership with federal government agencies.