Religious advocacy in the US
MICHAEL SEAN WINTERS
A recent report claims that huge sums are spent on lobbying by religious groups in the United States. But an analysis of the US bishops’ work in this area shows that it is comparatively frugal, carefully targeted and highly effective
The Pew Research Center’s recent study on religious advocacy has caused a dust-up in Washington DC. The report indicated that there has been an explosion both in the number of religious advocacy groups lobbying the Federal Government – from fewer than 40 organisations in 1970 to more than 200 today – and in the amount of money spent on such advocacy, which Pew estimated to be US$390 million (£252m) per year.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) noted that much of the US$26m (£16m) the Pew study said the USCCB spends annually went towards catechesis, evangelisation and social programmes that help the poor, and not towards lobbying. “No one is going on a golfing vacation in Scotland with us,” said John Carr, a policy advocate for the USCCB, referring to some of the hospitality traditionally associated with lobbyists.
But behind the controversy surrounding the Pew Center’s numbers is a more intriguing question: how do religious organisations, and especially the USCCB, go about lobbying for their agenda in Washington? And how effective are they? Technically, the bishops only have three full-time lobbyists, who work in its government-relations department. But advocates such as Carr and others who work at the USCCB headquarters are well known and respected in Washington’s corridors of power.
“The USCCB’s lobbying is unique and effective,” says Stephen Schneck, professor of politics at the Catholic University of America. “It’s not a high-powered operation of wellheeled former senators and congressmen and generals of the sort that pretty much describes most Washington lobbying.”
Religious-advocacy groups employ a variety of different tactics to advance their agenda. They arrange meetings with government officials, legislators and even the President. They also write letters to members of Congress expressing their concerns. They issue press releases to call attention to their issues. The USCCB often contacts the directors of state Catholic conferences, asking them to contact their representatives in Congress.
Earlier this year, when the Federal Government proposed mandated insurance coverage of contraception, the USCCB issued inserts for church bulletins, encouraging Catholics to protest against the mandate, which, the bishops argued, had an insufficiently broad conscience exemption. More than 32,000 people responded by registering comments on the Government’s website.
This past summer, in the middle of budget negotiations between the White House and Congress, the USCCB spearheaded an effort to protect those budget programmes that help the poor from budget cuts. The so-called “Circle of Protection” included ministers of many different denominations and they arranged meetings with Republican congressional leaders as well as with President Obama. At the White House meeting, the religious leaders pressed home a simple message: the poor have a claim on us. The group was singularly successful. When the budget deal was reached, it mandated that across-
‘The bishops are not usually asking for anything for themselves. That is rare in Washington and it makes politicians take notice’
the-board budget cuts could affect the entire budget, including the usually untouchable Pentagon, but not programmes such as Medicaid and Food Stamps that help the poor.
“The ability to get to both sides of the aisle was critical,” says Kathy Saile, the USCCB’s director of domestic policy. “It actually helped that no politicians championed this, so it didn’t become a ‘one side against the other’ partisan issue.”
The “Circle of Protection” worked, in part, because it spanned the religious spectrum. Getting different religious groups together increases their effectiveness, according to the Pew Center’s principal author, Professor Allen Hertzke. In a radio interview, Hertzke noted the success of religious advocacy groups in putting the issue of human trafficking on the radar screen of the nation’s political leaders, saying they had a “decisive impact” on public policy. Without that advocacy, Hertzke said “we wouldn’t have a trafficking office at the State Department and extensive operations to combat trafficking”.
Saile agreed but noted, however, that getting different religious denominations to work together can be a challenge, saying: “I tell my friends who work on Capitol Hill, ‘This is baby play compared to church politics.’”
Legislation is enormously complex, and a large part of the work done at the USCCB is focused on determining precisely what is and is not in a bill. Additionally, once passed, laws have to be implemented by a variety of federal agencies and the staffers at the USCCB keep a watchful eye on that implementation. For example, in the area of education, much of the USCCB’s focus in recent years has been on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (Idea), which was re-authorised in 2004. Idea aims to ensure that students with disabilities are not denied educational opportunities because of their disabilities, and to give school districts the funds to provide for these students.
The main objective of the USCCB education department has been to make sure that the money follows the student, so that no disabled student is penalised for going to a private school. “Often school districts don’t know where a student has gone,” says Marie Powell, head of the USCCB’s secretariat on education. “Our main objective was to guarantee that students who are eligible for services under Idea get them in private as well as public schools.”
Powell has also been at the centre of a debate over changes in school funding programmes, which meant that private schools – which include Catholic schools – are losing out. The USCCB has joined with other religious groups that belong to the Council for Private Education, which sent a letter to all senators urging them to require a more equitable distribution of funds. Powell noted that only a
6 | THE TABLET | 7 January 2012 minority of her office’s time is spent on public policy issues. The team spends the bulk of its time on leadership development, raising money for Catholic schools and promoting catechetical ideas. Only one of the education secretariat’s four full-time staffers deals with public policy on a regular basis.
Sometimes, groups that are affiliated with the USCCB take the lead. For example, the President’s Emergency Plan For Aids Relief received the strong support of Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the US bishops’ programme for foreign assistance. CRS not only helped get the programme passed and funded – US$15 billion (£9.5b) over five years – but also succeeded in getting conscience protections inserted into the legislation so that the Church’s efforts would not be penalised because they decline to participate in certain anti-Aids efforts that involve condom distribution. Saile said that the bill never would have passed without conscience exemptions that satisfied the USCCB.
The USCCB also played a key role in keeping political attention focused on the nightmare in Sudan, Saile said. She noted that because of the Church’s extensive social programmes, both at home and abroad, “the bishops have an experiential voice as well as a moral one on these issues”.
The Pew study detected an especially large increase in the number and influence of religious groups that pursue more conservative political goals. Among the most well-funded groups are the Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America, the National Right to Life Committee and the Home School Legal Defense Association, all groups that tilt hard to the Right. “Social conservatives have created, over the past 30 years, some of the most vibrant social movement networks,” notes Hertzke.
John Gehring, of the progressive group Faith in Public Life, sees the pendulum swinging to the Left, arguing: “A growing movement of progressive and moderate Catholics and evangelicals is now challenging the notion that the religious Right has a monopoly on our values debate. Faith-based organisations that focus on the common good and promoting a consistent ethic of life are bringing together religious leaders committed to humane immigration reform, economic justice, environmental stewardship and common-ground policies that prevent abortion.”
“I think what most differentiates the USCCB and other religious advocacy groups is that they are usually advocating for someone else,” says Fred Rotondaro, chair of the progressive group, Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. “Oil lobbyists knock on congressional doors seeking subsidies. Lobbyists for small businesses are looking for tax breaks. But the bishops go in and say, ‘We want you to help the poor.’ They are not usually asking for anything for themselves. That is rare in Washington and it makes politicians take notice.”
■ Michael Sean Winters writes for The Tablet from Washington DC.
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