Nonprofits triumph over House Republicans in 2012 budget battle

Nonprofit groups are in a celebratory mood after triumphing over House Republicans in a battle over federal funding for service programs.

House Republicans had proposed zeroing out funding for the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) in H.R. 1, the budget proposal they passed earlier this year.

But the omnibus package Congress passed last week to fund the government preserves most of the funding for CNCS programs such as AmeriCorps and Senior Corps, while also providing $445 million in fiscal 2014 for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting — another GOP target for cuts.

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One lobbyist said the Republican budget plan was a wake-up call for nonprofit organizations.

“Probably the first half was crisis because everyone was figuring out where the floor was,” said Tom Sheridan, founder and president of the Sheridan Group. “The second half was frustrating because we were negotiating against zeroes.”

The Voices for National Service was among the groups that organized the lobbying campaign to argue that nonprofits provide critical help to the unemployed.  

“At the end of the day, it's all about local consequences. You can zero out these programs, but that means hundreds of local families will be in need in your area,” said AnnMaura Connolly, the group’s president.

In the end, the omnibus slashed only $25 million from the CNCS budget, while providing $1.05 billion in funding for fiscal 2012. 

“It is an imperfect compromise because the politics have pulled it so far to the right. But it's so much better than the alternative,” Sheridan said of the omnibus. “When you have to start every conversation at zero, it's very much of a non-starter. The nonprofit community has to change the debate.”

Activists and lobbyists targeted key lawmakers as they battled to protect the service funding. Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.), chairman of the House Labor, Health and Human Services Appropriations subcommittee, was one of the members who came under pressure. 

In a draft appropriations bill he released this fall, Rehberg proposed funding some CNCS programs — to the tune of $280 million — while eliminating others. 

That plan did not survive in the omnibus, which saw much more funding for CNCS. A spokesman for Rehberg said federal funds were limited and priorities had to be set. 

"Denny’s legislation was crafted with significant public input from Montana and around the country. Throughout the year, Denny heard directly from people who were positively impacted by Senior Corps, and his draft legislation and the recently passed conference report reflects it," said Jed Link, a Rehberg spokesman.

Heather Margolis, the Montana field organizer for ServeNext, helped organize call-ins, petitions, letter-writing campaigns and visits to congressional staff in Rehberg’s office. 

“This was new for me,” Margolis said. “We need to be really good at making the case for what we do. At first in Montana, there was no organized groundswell of support.”

There was even a social-media component to the lobbying effort that worked to bring Rehberg's attention to local press stories about Montana nonprofits.

“One of my jobs was to get it on Denny's Facebook page and get it on Denny's Twitter page,” Margolis said.

Some say the rollercoaster ride for service funding is evidence that the nonprofit sector needs to develop a more cohesive political strategy. 

“It's Exhibit A for why the sector needs to act collectively rather than everyone championing their own cause or mission,” said Robert Egger, president of D.C. Kitchen, which serves meals to the homeless and elderly and provides job training. 

“Our ability to stall legislation was more a byproduct of luck than skill. … That's not a strategy for the current economic and political environment. That's an invitation to disaster,” Egger said.

Egger is president and founder of CForward, a new advocacy group that will push lawmakers to be more supportive of nonprofits. Egger said the group's political action committee would make campaign contributions, while its 501(c)(4) arm plans to eventually sponsor radio and television ads.

“The economic role of nonprofits in America is completely undervalued,” Egger said.

“'I’m tired of educating people. I want to send people who are already educated and are vested in this community and want to make it work,” Egger said. “We plan to endorse, raise money and get out the vote for candidates throughout 2012.”

Next year is expected to be just as tough for nonprofit groups, as Congress will have to author another federal budget in a climate of fiscal austerity. Sheridan said “serious conversations” would be taking place in the sector on how aggressive to be in politics and lobbying.

“We need to get much louder and add more tools to the toolbox to change the political conversation,” Sheridan said. “If you're not thanking them for being your champion or spanking them for decimating your program, you're not relevant to the debate.”