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Saturday, January 29, 2005

BLOG SWARM! How the Blogosphere Can Get the Real Washington Payola Scandal

Armstrong Williams, Maggie Gallagher and Michael McManus have been much in the news in recent weeks, thanks to revelations in the MSM about their contracts with various federal agencies. Their troubles illustrate a maxim of public policy commentary in the Internet age - failure to disclose potential conflicts of interest can have devastating consequences.

Still, I have found it more than a little irritating to read these revelations - especially those in The Washington Post - because for many years one of the most serious unreported scandals of the Washington Establishment has been the fact that many of the people regularly quoted in the MSM on public policy issues are recipients or beneficiaries of hundreds of millions of tax dollars annually doled out by federal agencies to favored non-profit advocacy groups, ideologically motivated groups of consultants/experts, individual scholars, writers and public relations firms.

Yet, I don't recall ever reading a story in the Post, The New York Times or any other MSM outlet in which a quote from one of these people is followed by a sentence disclosing how much that person or his or her organization receives annually in government-paid largesse. The hypocrisy here, of course, is that the MSM has long been a leading cheerleader for campaign finance reform and financial disclosure for public officials (which I, too, strongly support).

But if we are going to be consistent (yes, I know what Mr. Emerson snarkily said about hobgobblins and consistency but he was wrong), then what's good for the goose is good for the gander. If financial considerations - i.e. contributions - influence how congressmen vote, surely advocates on public policy issues testifying before Congress and speaking to journalists while on the federal dole are no different.

BTW, that's also why comprehensive documentation of all government grants, contracts and consulting deals should be posted on the internet. The public should also be able to access the government's assessments of the performance of its contractors on previous contracts, as with the Past Performance Information Retrieval System (PPIRS). But that's a discussion for another time.

National Review's Jonathan Adler has a super column on this very point, which you can read by clicking on the headline above. Adler zeroes in on the flow of tax dollars from EPA to its numerous non-profit allies in the environmental movement, but the same phenomenon is found in virtually every area of government activity and public policy debate.

Here's how Adler describes the Post's treatment of that cash flow:

To the contrary, most major environmental organizations are on the federal dole. Environmental Defense received a $240,000 EPA grant last September and has received over $4.5 million from the EPA since 1993. Likewise the World Resources Institute has been awarded over $1 million from the EPA in the last five years. The Natural Resources Defense Council is one of the loudest advocates for increasing the EPA's regulatory authority — and one of Bush administration's most persistent critics. Yet NRDC has received over $6.5 million since 1993. Just last month the EPA awarded NRDC another $400,000 grant. Yet when these organizations appear in the Washington Post, whether in bylined pieces or reported articles, their federal support is scarcely, if ever, disclosed.

To be fair, I recall seeing such a disclosure only occasionally in the pages of The Washington Times, and let's not have any illusions about which side of the political spectrum receives federal funding. I believe most of these tax dollars go to organizations and individuals on the Left because they have a philosophical predisposition to support activist government. But there are significant organizations and people on the Right who benefit as well. For the record, my employer, The Heritage Foundation, receives exactly zero government funding and never has been the recipient of a federal dollar.

Thanks to the success of the Contract with America, this issue received some public discussion in the mid-1990s when House Republicans began insisting in 1995 that individuals testifying before Congress disclose all federal funding received by the organizations they were representing. Unfortunately, the MSM didn't get the hint and start following a similar practice. Nor has the Republican majority taken further steps to increase transparency such as applying the Freedom of Information Act to Congress.

What is surprising about this state of affairs is that the MSM continues to keep its readers in the dark about the federal financial considerations behind the comments and commentary of so many of its sources, despite the relative ease with which those considerations can be documented.

As Adler points out, there is a federal tax form required of all non-profits - the IRS Form 990 - that includes a section listing sources of income. Having spent countless hours during my reporting days poring over the 990s of non-profits like Maryland teachers unions, I can attest to the target-rich environment provided by the disclosures in these federal tax forms.

There are several fairly easy ways to obtain the latest 990 filed by any non-profit. First, IRS regulations require the organization to provide a copy to anybody requesting it via written, telephone, email or in-person. No reason for the request must be provided and and the IRS regulations allow only reasonable copying charges. Be forewarned, however, it is not unusual for a 990 to consist of multiple pages, so the copying charges can mount up.

The second way of obtaining a non-profit's latest 990 is to go on the internet and check out the web site of Guidestar.org. Guidestar is a private organization publishes hundreds of thousands of 990s. All you have to do is type in the name of the non-profit in which you are interested and odds are good you'll have its latest 990 in a few seconds. Before you do that, however, spend some time on Guidestar's excellent tutorial that describes line-by-line the nature of the information that should be contained on each line of the 990.

Now, think what might be found when the Blogosphere goes into swarm-mode and starts researching the government funding received by non-profit advocacy groups across the political spectrum. I guarantee you the results will dwarf anything Howie Kurtz of the Post or anybody else in the MSM has in mind on this issue.

Such a blog swarm would also force a much-needed transparency in public policy advocacy that the MSM has avoided for decades, perhaps because of a shared ideological perspective among some journalists and their favored sources in the advocacy community. Such a swarm would also put down a marker for the importance and utility of transparency in government that would immensely enhance and advance the public policy debate in this country on all important issues.

So my question now is: What are we waiting for, bloggers?

UPDATE: Newspaper columnist and Marriage Savers founder Michael McManus released a statement that adds important factual details and appropriate perspective to the USA Today story regarding his alleged conflict of interest in receiving an HHS grant. Most critically, Michael points out that the grant was announced on the Marriage Savers web site and that the grant was to the organization, not to him personally. These are details the USA Today story should have made clear.

Here is the complete text of Michael's statement:

"USA Today published a front page story today which states 'The Department of Health and Human Services acknowledged Thursday that it paid a syndicated columnist at least $4,000 for work on behalf of Bush administration efforts to promote marriage... Mike McManus, who writes a weekly column syndicated in 30 to 40 newspapers, said he was paid about $4,000 to train marriage mentors in 2003 and 2004. McManus was subcontracted by the Lewin Group, which had a contract to help communities 'form and sustain healthy marriages.'
"Let me correct the record: After checking our records, HHS paid a total of $10,199.98 to Marriage Savers, Inc for making six presentations (including travel expenses). We also were awarded a federal grant of $48,993 (via a competitive bidding process) in a 'capacity-expanding grant' to adapt our materials to serve unwed couples having babies out of wedlock. These funds came to Marriage Savers Inc., not to me personally. They are only 2.7% of the $2.1 million we have raised, mostly from churches, foundations and individuals.
"Marriage Savers® is a 501©3 organization, founded in December, 1996. It is a ministry that equips local communities, principally through local congregations, to help men and women to 'Prepare for lifelong marriage, strengthen existing marriages, and restore troubled marriages.'
Far from failing to disclose these federal funds, the news was prominently displayed on our website
"In addition to my work as President of Marriage Savers I write and self-syndicate a column, Ethics & Religion, to about 50 newspapers. There is no connection between my column and the federal funds awarded Marriage Savers.
"I'm very proud of Marriage Savers’ work. We pioneered the use of the Community Marriage Policy®, in which clergy agree to specific effective marriage-saving strategies. (For details see our website). Clergy of nearly 10,000 congregations in 191 cities and towns in 41 states have signed CMPs.

"According to an independent study ('Assessing the Impact of Community Marriage Policies® on County Divorce Rates') published in the October, 2004 issue of the scholarly journal Family Relations, the divorce rate of 114 Community Marriage Policy counties fell 17.5% while it dropped only 9.4% in comparison counties without a CMP over a seven-year period.
"The study concludes, 'We found that the number of divorces that actually occurred...averaged about 30,000 fewer than the 700,000 expected without the intervention.' Since we are now in 191 cities, the study estimates we saved '40,000 to 50,000' marriages.
"Marriage Savers® has thus pioneered one of America’s most effective marriage interventions. Our contract with HHS recognizes that work and I'm very proud of it, and more importantly of the children and adults we've help protect from the traumas of family fragmentation."

I have been an aquaintance of Michael McManus for more than a decade and find the suggestion that he could be persuaded to articulate a pro-marriage view in return for a federal grant about as ridiculous as anything I've heard since Al Gore claimed to have invented the internet. Michael and his wife were laboring on behalf of improving marriages for many years before receiving the HHS grant in question.

Having said that, I also continue to believe that any columnist writing on a public policy issue in which he or she has a related professional interest funded in part by government should disclose that funding, if only to be like Caeser's wife.

UPDATE II: Several readers have kindly pointed out that in my initial post on this topic I was incorrect in ascribing that wonderful consistency quote to Lord Keynes. It was in fact Ralph Waldo Emerson who said it and I have now corrected it above.