Direct and Indirect Taxpayer Support for Lobbying

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Introduction

The problem of both direct and indirect taxpayersupport for lobbying is a serious one. Even the theoretically bestof congressional intentions can be badly perverted by federalgrantors and activist grantees. For instance, in the name ofpreventing alcohol abuse, the Department of Health and HumanServices, through the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention (one ofthree constituent parts of the Substance Abuse and Mental HealthServices Administration), has used public funds to promote mediaand political campaigns for higher excise taxes, restrictions onadvertising, and destruction of private billboards. At timesofficials appear to have skirted the ban on taxpayer-fundedlobbying, violating the spirit if not the letter of the law.

SAMHSA's formal objective is to improve "prevention, treatment, andrehabilitation services for people with substance abuse and mentalillnesses." Similarly, CSAP's programs "are designed to helpeliminate or reduce alcohol, tobacco, and other drug problems inour society. The Center supports partnerships at all levels andwith all sectors of society to help create a national comprehensiveprevention agenda for everyone's benefit."

Few could disagree with such goals in theory. In practice, however,CSAP is interested in far more than substance abuse. All too oftenthe agency has interpreted its mission--through its grant process,research support, organizational activities, and publicpronouncements--as organizing local activists to attack people'sdrinking preferences. Thus, CSAP treats political campaigns onalcohol advertising, availability, prices, and taxation as if theywere nonpartisan health debates.

Among the leading beneficiaries of federal largesse in this area isthe Marin Institute. The Institute's formal mission, of reducing"the toll of alcohol and other drug problems," is, again, one withwhich few could disagree. However, the Marin Institute does farmore than discourage problem drinkers. For example, theorganization explains that "effective prevention must incorporateprinciples of social justice and a special focus on populationsthat have been traditionally disenfranchised" and emphasizes thatit develops "new resources and strategies that are on the forefrontof the prevention field and that do not shrink from controversy."Similarly, Institute Senior Fellow James Mosher wrote in AnnualReview of Public Health that "the new alcohol policy movementoffers the entire public health field the opportunity to reach newconstituencies. In keeping with the nature of the problems it isdesigned to prevent, the approach cuts across ideological, racial,ethnic, and socioeconomic divisions in our society and provides themeans to build a coalition for broad social change in regard tohealth policy."

The Institute devotes significant resources to creating state andnational networks of community activists. Nor is the Institute shyabout offering political opinions: it opposed cutbacks in theCalifornia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control which, itexplained, would "severely limit the agency's ability to enforcelaws that are designed to support the health of our communities."The Institute went on to urge readers to write letters, canvassneighbors, and "build a local coalition" to "support theABC."

Politics the Intent

Politics is not merely a byproduct of CSAP grants to groups likethe Marin Institute. It often appears to be the agency's goal. CSAPhas, for instance, labored mightily to equip activist organizationsto lobby not only federal officials, but also state and localgovernments. The agency provided nearly one million dollars between1990 and 1993 for the Marin Institute's youth Alcohol EnvironmentOn-Line Information Project. The project was directed against thealcohol industry which, of course, was considered to be creatingthe "environment" with which the Institute was disatisfied.According to the formal grant proposal, the Institute intended to"compile the only special collection of materials on the alcoholbeverage industry in existence outside of the industry itself."Indeed, the Institute's Media and Policy Center, explained theproposal, "is creating ALCNET, an on-line computer network to meetthe needs of media advocates in the alcohol field for rapidcommunication regarding media opportunities." Federal fundsunderwrote the creation of a daily on-line news summary regardingyouth alcohol problems, an on-line database consisting of industrymaterials "relevant" to the prevention of such problems. TheInstitute then planned to promote use of the network by theindividuals and organizations with which it had been working.

Although the project was formally directed at drinking by children,it was clearly intended to assist political activists incounteracting advertising by the alcohol industry. Advertising,explained the Institute, "creates an environment in which themessages of the alcohol beverage industry's multibillion dollarpromotional campaigns are reinforced at every turn." Hence, enterWashington doling out taxpayer funds. The federally-subsidized"media advocacy" project, explained the Institute's grant proposal,"tries to reframe health issues to focus on industry practices as aprimary problem, exposing them as exploitive and unethical."

Indeed, the Institute stated that this project would have beenuseful in handling past queries from local "alcohol controlactivists." Among the issues it cited were the industry's responseto activists' positions, industrial ownership patterns, industryefforts to curtail sales to minors, state experience in amendingdram shop laws, the backgroud of industry spokesmen, industrypromotional expenditures, likely industry arguments, industryproduct and promotional strategies, and industry philanthropicactivities. Explained the Institute, "This list gives somerepresentation of the kinds of questions activists need answers toas they try to implement environmental change and practice mediaadvocacy." Virtually none of these questions have anything to dowith health or substance abuse; rather, almost all involvepolitical attacks on the alcohol industry and the very idea ofsocial drinking. In short, taxpayers are paying to help activistslobby to, for instance, impose higher excise taxes on the very sametaxpayers.

Media Advocacy

CSAP has underwritten other Marin Institute "media advocacy"projects. Similarly, the University Research Corporation (URC) ofBethesda, Maryland, another agency grantee, put together a set of"media advocacy case studies" at CSAP's behest. The report-- which,naturally, explained that it did not necessarily reflect theagency's position--highlighted activists' use of the media in"reducing the presence of alcohol and tobacco advertising and salesin their neighborhoods." CSAP's underlying political agenda wasclear: local activists "had to take on government and business. Insome cases, they changed or created city and local ordinances. Inother cases, they changed the policies and practices of advertisingcompanies, stores, and even manufacturers."

Among the examples compiled at taxpayer expense was a San Diegocampaign, involving ACT UP, among other gay groups, to link alcoholwith the transmission of AIDS, increase alcohol excise taxes,expand condom availability, and eliminate advertising tying alcoholto sex. Numerous media stunts were suggested, including "using agigantic blow-up beer bottle with a condom over it." Alas,explained the URC, "this was an appealing image but one not used."The report goes on to quote one local activist who explained that:"We need sex, kids, gays, motion, emotion, and real universityresearchers." In the end, ACT UP members smashed beer bottles forthe press and one activist dressed in a beer can costume, over whomsomeone else placed a body-size condom. Although ACT UP and otherorganizations are obviously free to stage a show like this any timethey wish, Congress should review the appropriateness of having afederal agency use public funds to promote this sort of bizarrepolitical activism.

Another questionable initiative, entitled "Media Advocacy inAfrican-American and Latino Communities and On-Line," was directedat minorities. The publication offered a broadside against alcoholand tobacco advertising. For instance, it celebrated communityactivists who had "used the media like a searchlight, pointing itsbeam in the direction of what they wanted changed." The result wasto reduce "the presence of alcohol and tobacco advertising andsales in their neighborhoods," particularly through billboards. ButCSAP promoted more than just protests against billboards. TheCenter included a chapter on "Artfux," so-called guerrilla artistswho deface private billboards with alcohol advertising. The membersof Artfux, reported the CSAP publication, "did not fear taking oncorporate America." Since 1989 the group has illegally altered 41billboards, painting their own messages. Reported CSAPapprovingly:

While Artfux recognized that the billboards were private property,these artists viewed their actions as the lesser of two evils. Theyargued that their revision of the alcohol and tobacco ads was in noway comparable to censorship, since their efforts had aninsignificant impact on the industries' combined five billiondollar annual marketing campaigns. Furthermore, Artfux contendedthat they were providing health information that was hidden fromthe public by the alcohol and tobacco industries.

CSAP went on to list the "lessons learned," including that"sensationalism makes news" and "even with a sensational event,careful planning is necessary." The report's following chapterdiscussed the political activities of the Association forResponsible Alcohol Control, which campaigned for approval of morerestrictive land use regulations to reduce the number of liquorstores. The Center then summed up the lessons of ARAC's experience,including the importance of media contacts in local politicalefforts.

Whether or not local groups are justified in using these and othertactics, Congress should ask the question: why is the federalgovernment using tax money to promote their activities? (CSAP'sglowing presentation of the organizations' efforts belies itsdisclaimer of support.) In the name of restraining abuse, politicalactivists, aided by the federal government, are lobbying localofficials to interfere with responsible drinking by the vastmajority of Americans.

Media Training

CSAP also touts the importance of media advocacy training, whichprovides its staffers with "the necessary skills to enable them toseek out and take advantage of media outreach opportunities such aslocal radio or newspaper interviews as they travel." This fall theDepartments of Education and Health and Human Services aresponsoring a symposium, "Covering Alcohol and other Drug Issues onCampus" for college journalists, at which the 1995 JournalismCompetition winner will be announced. Participation, students areassured, is "virtually free! Airfare, lodging, and most meals costyou nothing!" The agenda is highly political, with a presentationon "The Marketing of Alcoholic Beverages" by a representative ofthe left-leaning, regulatory-minded Center for Science in thePublic Interest. Other workshops cover "Editor as Advocate" and"When Advertisers Protest." Equally important is the agency's mediawork in training local activists. One CSAP publication cited RuthAnn Lipic, from Illinois, who stated that training by the CSAPCommunications Team gave her "a professional edge, courage, andtechniques to use." Last October CSAP sponsored a conference on theFuture of Media Advocacy. The purpose of the meeting was to shareinformation with media activists and "to advance the practice ofmedia advocacy and broaden support for it."

The Center explained that: "Reducing [alcohol and tobacco]advertising and limiting where and how these products may be servedor sold; decreasing the number and placement of alcoholdistribution outlets; limiting hours that alcohol distributors arein service; increasing excise taxes of alcohol; and raisingawareness of the media's glamorous portraysl of [alcohol andtobacco] use are examples of social or public policies that havebeen advanced by community groups through the use of media advocacytechniques." Every one of these goals involves lobbying andpolitical activism.

Organizing Political Activists

The agency also helps organize activists whose objectives are morepolitical action than public health. For instance, CSAP helpeddevelop and promote the National Prevention League (recentlyrenamed the National Drug Prevention League), made up of privateorganizations, and the National Prevention Council, consisting ofstate and local groups. Federal money has also been used to assistactivists in attending NDPL functions, even though the Leagueconsiders itself to be a "supergroup" advocacy organizationintending to create a national network to "allow for and supporteffective action." Meaning excise tax hikes and the like.

The NDPL, in turn, is devoted to promoting CSAP's bureaucraticagenda. One element of that is social activism. According to theminutes of the initial meeting, prepared by Executive Director SueRusche, "a general consensus emerged that a need exists for aunited effort to basically change societal norms." This naturallyrequires local political campaigns directed against legal andresponsible drinking. Indeed, CSAP's predecessor agency, OSAP,sponsored a national conference on Media Opportunities on Alcoholin October 1988, at which "smoking control and alcohol controlactivists" discussed "creative epidemiology," which "bringstogether research and media advocacy, reworking data so they can bepresented in a new and interesting form," and criticism of theindustry, which allow "health advocates to create controversy whichcan illuminate the need for review and reform of public healthpolicies, and energize communities and promotional targets (i.e.youth) to act to achieve these reforms." In other words, a federalagency with taxpayer funds helped alcohol neo-prohibitionists learnpolitical lessons from opponents of tobacco.

Thus, the ultimate result of many CSAP grants is lobbying, albeitoften at the local level. For instance, in a study funded by CSAP,James Mosher, with the Marin Institute, and Ellen Frank, of theUniversity of California at Berkeley, laud the increasedwillingness of state and local governments to reduce minimundrinking age laws, pass legislation reducing blood alcohol contentlevels (even though the latter actually do little to address theproblem of drunk drivers, who normally have BAC levels far abovethe minimum), and increase restrictions on alcohol availability.Nevertheless, they remain frustrated because "policy enactment hasbeen stalled on other fronts notably on measures that woulddirectly affect alcohol marketing practices," often because ofintense alcohol industry lobbying."

Not to fear, though. The activist groups subsidized by CSAP usuallypush this political agenda. Explain Mosher and Frank: "alcoholpolicy activists have sought to build support among citizens'groups and professional organizations. This effort has had manysuccesses, most notably in the building of national coalitions forthe enactment of warning label legislation, alcohol advertisingreform, and increases in alcohol excise taxes." Although federalfunds are not to be used to directly aid such endeavors, supportinggroups that lobby, assisting their "media advocacy" campaigns, andpaying for reports such as that from Mosher and Frank, whichassesses "the extent to which the alcohol policy agenda has reachednew constituencies" and critiques industry financial support fornonprofit groups, is effectively the same thing. Indeed, Mosher andFrank observe that "in at least two cases, our telephone inquiriesappeared to spur consideration of the policies within theorganization."

Preserving Funding

Finally, CSAP, like most federal agencies, works hard to use pastfunding to preserve future funding. Of course, it is not supposedto formally lobby but CSAP appears to consciously skirt the law.One strategy involves creating new lobbying organizations, such asthe National Drug Prevention League. According to Dr. Michael Dana,CSAP's Director of the Office of Intergovernmental and ExternalAffairs, the NDPL "will create mechanisms to discuss ways toeducate the appropriate individuals, to make the case thatprevention is the way to have an effect on drug use over the longhaul." Among the "appropriate individuals" are congressmen andcongresswomen. As Executive Director Sue Rusche puts it: "Hardlyanybody understands what prevention is, and certainly that has toapply to the United States Congress." Among NDPL's officialpositions are opposition to block grants and funding cuts. In earlyJanuary Rusche responded to proposals to eliminate governmentbureaus: "It seems totally foolhardy to dismantle federal agencies,but I'm afraid that might happen." It is no wonder, then, that theNDPL "is rushing to action now because of a perceived congressionalthreat to the very foundation of prevention programs." The group'sactivities were further described as "intended to enable preventionto reach a new level of influence in the public policyarena."

CSAP also attempts to turn program beneficiaries into lobbyists.The Center's 1993 Prevention Conference devoted two sessions to theoperation of congressional authorization andappropriationprocesses. While a session on how to apply to CSAP for a grant ofmoney appropriated by Congress would be legitimate, a review of theappropriation process acts as an open invitation for grantees topress Congress for more grant money for CSAP--and, ultimately, toconference participants.

Moreover, CSAP employees play an important role in advocacy groupsthat support continued federal funding of SAMHSA, CSAP, and similaragencies. For example, a half dozen federal workers playsignificant roles in the Alcohol, Tobacco, and other DrugsCommittee of the American Public Health Association: LauraFlinchbaugh of CSAP is Secretary; Bettina Scott of SAMHSA chairsthe Committee on Advocacy for Empowerment; Bob Volliner of CSAP isco-chair of the Resolution Committee; and Nelia Nadal and PatriciaWright, both of CSAP, are Section Councilors. Along with supportingthe proposal to turn Washington, D.C., into the state of NewColumbia, APHA also endorses stricter local regulations on alcoholand tobacco and discourages health organizations from acceptingfunds from alcohol and tobacco companies. Moreover, after lastNovember's election, APHA issued "A Call to Action!" and warned"Public Health THREATENED" on the front page of its newsletter. Theorganization went on to report on threats to SAMHSA funding andgive advice on how to lobby policymakers and write letters to theeditor and opinion pieces for newspapers. Finally, AssociationExecutive Director, Fernando Trevino, closed with a call forcontributions for the Public Health Advancement Fund. Explained Dr.Trevino: "the challenges presented by the new 104th Congress meanthat we, the public health professionals of the United States, mustcome together once again for action--this time perhaps for thesurvival of public health as we know it."

In fact, CSAP (then OSAP) has been reprimanded for illicitpolitical activities. Two years ago the General Accounting Officeconcluded that: OSAP did not violate the law restricting use ofappropriated funds for lobbying in it publications or in any of itsown activities. However, an OSAP grantee violated the lobbyingrestriction in connection with the Alcohol Policy VIII conference.Also, grass roots lobbying took place at the Healthy People/HealthyEnvironments conference, funded by HHS, although without any priorknowledge or complicity by either OSAP or HHS.

Having received this official warning, CSAP would, if concernedabout the law, have been exercising greater caution in its ownactivities and tighter oversight of its grantees' projects. Infact, the Center seems willing to operate as close to the line ofillegal lobbying as possible.

Conclusion

The days of sacred budget cows, however popular their purpose, isover. The yawning deficit alone requires reconsideration of everyexpenditure, especially if agencies are misusing federal monies forpolitical purposes.

The experience with CSAP suggests that Congress needs to carefullyreview the record of all agencies that make discretionary grants toprivate and nonprofit groups. More intensive inspector generalinvestigations, attention to lobbying of state as well as federalofficials, and, most importantly, a willingness to cut offmiscreants, would all help reduce the problem.

Doug Bandow

House Subcommittee on National Economic Growth, Natural Resources, and Regulatory Affairs