All Commentary
Sunday, October 1, 1995

Paying for Other People’s Politics

Special Interest Groups Raid Taxpayers' Wallets

Mr. Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of The Politics of Envy: Statism as Theology (Transaction).

For decades the federal government has been inexorably expanding its power, spending, taxing, and regulating almost at will. It was bad enough that Uncle Sam promiscuously redistributed people’s incomes to meet one alleged public need or another. Even worse has been Congress’ readiness to use taxpayer resources for explicitly political purposes. Washington currently provides advocacy groups with some $39 billion annually. Report Marshall Wittmann and Charles Griffin of the Heritage Foundation: “Over the past forty years, Congress has helped create a vast patronage network of organizations that enjoy tax-preferred status, receive federal funds, and engage in legislative or political advocacy.”

The beneficiaries of federal largesse read like a Who’s Who of advocates of big government. For instance, labor unions receive millions of dollars annually in grants—between mid-1993 and mid-1994 the Teamsters collected $3.5 million and the AFLCIO pocketed $2 million. The American Bar Association grabbed $2.2 million over the same period. The Child Welfare League of America received $260,000; the Environmental Defense Fund collected $515,000. The National Council of Senior Citizens, which gets an incredible 96 percent of its revenues from Uncle Sam, grabbed $71.5 million, while the AARP, the prime lobbying force behind cash-consuming, bankruptcy-headed Social Security, collected $73.7 million. Other beneficiaries include the League of Women Voters, Planned Parenthood, Families USA, World Wildlife Fund, Consumer Federation of America, American Nurses Association, United Auto Workers, and AFSCME.

Virtually every department and agency in government contributes its share to the plunder: Labor, Education, Health and Human Services, Interior, EPA, and more. One of the most abusive bureaucracies is the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), which, in the name of representing the poor, has used taxpayer funds to oppose state and federal initiatives to cut spending, trim regulations, and reduce taxes. Americans are paying twice—first for LSC grants, and second for the bigger government promoted by LSC grantees.

Even the theoretically best of congressional intentions is often perverted by federal grantors and activist grantees. For instance, in the name of preventing alcohol abuse the Department of Health and Human Services, through the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention (CSAP), has used public funds to promote media and political campaigns for higher alcohol excise taxes, restrictions on advertising, and destruction of private billboards. At times officials appear to have skirted the ban on taxpayer-funded lobbying, violating the spirit if not the letter of existing law.

According to CSAP, its programs “are designed to help eliminate or reduce alcohol, tobacco, and other drug problems in our society.” Few could disagree with such a goal in theory. In practice, however, CSAP is interested in far more than substance abuse. All too often the agency has interpreted its mission—through its grant process, research support, organizational activities, and public pronouncements—as organizing local groups to attack people’s drinking preferences.

For instance, CSAP has lavished federal largesse on the Marin Institute. The Institute does far more than discourage problem drinking. The organization explains that “effective prevention must incorporate principles of social justice and a special focus on populations that have been traditionally disenfranchised” and emphasizes that it develops “new resources and strategies that are on the forefront of the prevention field and that do not shrink from controversy.” Similarly, Institute Senior Fellow James Mosher has written that “the new alcohol policy movement offers the entire public health field the opportunity to reach new constituencies.” This approach, he adds, “provides the means to build a coalition for broad social change in regard to health policy.”

Politics is not merely a byproduct of CSAP grants to the Marin Institute, which promotes state and national networks of community activists and exhorts them to take political action. Politics often appears to be the agency’s goal. CSAP provided nearly one million dollars between 1990 and 1993 for the Marin Institute’s Youth Alcohol Environment On-Line Information Project. This federally-subsidized “media advocacy” project, explained the Institute’s grant proposal, “tries to reframe health issues to focus on industry practices as a primary problem, exposing them as exploitive and unethical.” Indeed, the Institute stated that this project would have been useful in handling past queries from local “alcohol control activists” about such issues as the industry’s response to activists’ positions, industrial ownership patterns, the background of industry spokesmen, industry promotional expenditures, and likely industry arguments. These sorts of questions have nothing to do with health concerns or substance abuse; rather, they involve political attacks on the alcohol industry and the very idea of social drinking.

The University Research Corporation (URC) of Bethesda, Maryland, another agency grantee, put together a set of “media advocacy case studies” at CSAP’s behest. The report highlighted activists’ use of the media in “reducing the presence of alcohol and tobacco advertising and sales in their neighborhoods.” CSAP’s underlying political agenda was clear: local activists “had to take on government and business. In some cases, they changed or created city and local ordinances. In other cases, they changed the policies and practices of advertising companies, stores, and even manufacturers.”

Among the examples compiled at taxpayer expense was a San Diego campaign, involving ACT UP, among other gay groups, to link alcohol with the transmission of AIDS, increase alcohol excise taxes, expand condom availability, and eliminate advertising tying alcohol to sex. The report quotes one local activist who explained that: “We need sex, kids, gays, motion, emotion, and real university researchers.” CSAP has also promoted a group of so-called guerrilla artists with an unprintable name who deface private billboards that feature alcohol advertising. The group, reported CSAP, “did not fear taking on corporate America.” Since 1989 the group has illegally altered 41 billboards, painting their own messages. CSAP went on to list the “lessons learned,” including that “sensationalism makes news” and “even with a sensational event, careful planning is necessary.”

Local groups are free to attack the alcohol industry, of course. But why is the federal government using tax money to promote such activities? In the name of restraining substance abuse, political activists, aided by the federal government, are lobbying local officials to interfere with responsible drinking by the vast majority of Americans—and taxpayers.

CSAP also touts the importance of media advocacy training for its own staffers and local activists. The agency assists political activists in other ways. For instance, CSAP helped develop and promote the National Prevention League (recently renamed the National Drug Prevention League). Federal money has also been used to assist activists in attending NDPL functions, even though the League considers itself to be a “supergroup” advocacy organization that, among other things, lobbies Congress on CSAP’s behalf. According to Dr. Michael Dana, CSAP’s Director of the Office of Intergovernmental and External Affairs, the NDPL “will create mechanisms to discuss ways to educate the appropriate individuals, to make the case that prevention is the way to have an effect on drug use over the long haul.” Among the “appropriate individuals” are congressmen and congresswomen. As Executive Director Sue Rusche put it: “Hardly anybody understands what prevention is, and certainly that has to apply to the United States Congress.”

In fact, two years ago CSAP (then the Office for Substance Abuse Prevention) was reprimanded by the General Accounting Office for illicit political activities. Were it concerned about the law, the agency should have been exercising greater caution in its own activities and tighter oversight of its grantees’ projects. Instead, the Center seems intent on operating as close to the line of illegal lobbying as possible.

The case for cutting the federal budget is clear enough. The case for eliminating grant money for political activists is even clearer. As Thomas Jefferson put it: “To compel a man to furnish funds for the propagation of ideas he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.” It is time that taxpayers, rather than legislators, decided which groups they want to support. Democracy means very little if influential interests are able to regularly raid taxpayers’ wallets to underwrite their political campaigns and lobbying activities.

  • Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of a number of books on economics and politics. He writes regularly on military non-interventionism.