Church Exemption: Good for the Goose is Good for the Gander

New Orleans   The membership of legacy religious institutions may be falling like a rock, but their privileges are increasing. President Trump last week signed an executive order that sought to do a couple of things for churches. On one hand he wanted to give them some more flexibility in opposing abortion for their workers and institutions, but most of that had already been done by the courts in the Hobby Lobby case. The other penance he offered was protection for political endorsements being made by pastors right from the pulpit, and that’s interesting.

The Internal Revenue Service provides a tax exemption under its 501c3 classification for religious institutions and other nonprofits providing charitable, educational, and other benefits. In exchange for such a tax exemption there are some restrictions including the level of profit-making enterprises escaping taxation, unless they are directly related to the mission and purpose of the exempt nonprofit. There is also a ban on political activity and endorsements.

Trump’s executive order was a promise to the evangelical and religious community that he would get them around the Johnson Amendment and its restriction on religious endorsements. In some ways this was a bit of a straw man. Priests and pastors have been making political endorsements from the pulpit for years without provoking any investigations from the IRS, so they have been able to do so with impunity. Evangelical preachers have hardly been quaking in their brogans as they have embraced and endorsed conservative politicians from right to far-righter for fear of losing their tax privileges. Archbishops and Cardinals in heavily Catholic cities and states have sometimes jumped into the middle of political campaigns, including threatening excommunication of parishioners for voting for governors, senators, and representatives bold enough to support abortions. Trump’s claim was that his order would now protect them and give them license to jump into politics at their will and whim.

Talking to the director and organizer of an environmental group the other day who was debating whether his tax exempt group needed to form an entity that could be more aggressively active in pushing climate change into the political agenda, I had jokingly suggested that since a lot of environmentalists already talked about nature as their church, a simple fix for this problem would be to just say his outfit was now religious, and say whatever they wanted to say. Now in truth Trump’s order doesn’t mean much. The IRS will likely just ignore it and given the way they’ve ignored such blatant politics in the pulpit in the past and their depleted ranks in the exemption debate, it doesn’t add up to much.

But, what’s good for the goose, should be good for the gander. If the IRS lightened up on one group of nonprofits, they would have to lighten up on the whole bunch, equal protection being what it is once the matter finds its way to the courts. Nonprofit staff and leadership wouldn’t have to dance around whether they were speaking and acting personally and not as representatives of their organizations as they jumped into politics any more than pastors and priests. The President may not care that if he opens the door for one, everybody can walk in, but if this order has any weight, that’s what it should end up meaning. What’s good for one is good for all.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

ACORN Makes the Federal Budget Extension Bill Yet Again

Little Rock   In a story headlined, “I Can’t Do This Anymore, Congress. I Can’t: Republicans are blocking funds for the long-shuttered ACORN again,” Zach Carter, the senior economy reporter for the Huffington Post tries to retire from the ACORN-Is-Dead piece after years on the beat. Since I’ve counted on Zach to scour the budget to find out if ACORN is still high on the hater list for the Republicans, I’ll miss him, but I do what to honor his toil by sharing his report from the HuffPost today, so here is what Zach Carter has to say:

WASHINGTON ― One morning in early March of 2013, I received a reporting tip for what I thought would be the single dumbest story I would ever write. When I answered the phone, the Capitol Hill staffer on the other end could barely contain his laughter. House Republicans had slipped detailed language into a must-pass government funding bill that would prevent federal cash from flowing to an anti-poverty group called ACORN.

My source wasn’t a cold-hearted bureaucrat.

The GOP had grown accustomed to demanding concessions from Democrats on critical legislation since winning control of the House in 2010. Some of these maneuvers ― including a failed attempt to repeal Obamacare ― carried serious policy implications. But this particular case of legislative hostage-taking came with a punchline: ACORN didn’t exist. The organization had disbanded nearly three years prior. Congress was about to do something thoroughly futile, for no reason.

There was a certain aesthetic harmony between the emptiness of this looming legislative assault and the attack that caused ACORN’s demise. In 2009, conservative provocateur James O’Keefe had stitched together undercover footage that appeared to show ACORN staffers offering financial advice to a pimp who declared he was prostituting underage girls. Multiple government investigations would eventually clear ACORN of legal wrongdoing, and O’Keefe’s career would descend into a series of bizarre self-owns. But the damage to ACORN was done. Congress voted to cut off federal funding and the group closed its doors, humiliated.

Years later, ACORN’s enemies were apparently still not satisfied. I called the GOP spokeswoman for the House Appropriations Committee, who told me the anti-ACORN language was “a typical provision that is included in most appropriations bills.” This explanation, of course, only made everything weirder. Why would Congress routinely bar federal funding for an organization that doesn’t exist?

The ultimate answer turned out to be that Congress was barely functional. And it remains all-but-broken today. Four years later, here I am, sitting at my desk, writing another story about a budget bill attacking funds for ACORN. It’s right there on page 1,060 of the latest government funding legislation:

None of the funds made available under this or any other Act, or any prior Appropriations Act, may be provided to the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), or any of its affiliates, subsidiaries, allied organizations, or successors.Since ACORN does not exist, it has no affiliates or subsidiaries. “Allied organizations” and “successors” are not legally defined terms. I know because I have written different versions of this story over and over and over again. Every time Congress unveils a new bill to fund the federal government, I do a quick search through the text for “ACORN,” and Congress rarely lets me down.

Sometimes liberal publications or nerdy blogs boost the stories, but they always click well, because this tale is always so breathtakingly stupid. In August 2014, in a fit of foolishness, I declared the crusade against ACORN over because the language attacking funds for the nonexistent organization had disappeared from the budget bill. It reappeared in December of that year, prompting HuffPost’s publication of what I still believe to be the masterwork of this mini-genre, which we headlined “Tears of Sisyphus: Republicans Resurrect ACORN, Only To Murder It. Again.”

Once upon a time, lawmakers determined the federal budget by debating policy priorities and holding hearings about what the appropriate funding levels for different programs ought to be. This would be a series of negotiations over final appropriations and, ultimately, a relatively reliable stream of funds would emerge for social services, scientific research and other federal programs.

Congressional leaders abandoned that process some years ago, after a calamitous effort to extract ideological concessions tied to a bill to raise the debt ceiling nearly resulted in the U.S. government defaulting on the federal debt. In place of the old system, party leaders now copy and paste language from prior bills, seeking to avoid controversy, and hash out any disputes in private meetings. That’s how the ACORN phrasing makes it into law again and again. Somebody just pulls up whatever the old language was on Department of Health and Human Services funding, correctly assessing that whatever passed last time around won’t cause too much trouble today.

I used to get a kick out of the ACORN story. Most of my writing for HuffPost involves financial regulation, international bribery or some other technical issue involving money and numbers with high stakes. ACORN was a nice break ― something fun, stupid and essentially harmless.

But I can’t do it anymore. I’ve been writing about this foolishness for more than four years, and I’m not getting the same sense of joy or relief I used to get from seeing those five magic letters. The truth is that I’m starting to resent this beat, and I don’t want to remember it as something frustrating or annoying. I want to remember ACORN the way it deserves to be remembered. It’s not you, ACORN. It’s me.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

The Peoples’ Climate March Demonstrates the Danger of the Numbers Game

New Orleans  There are many iron laws in organizing, and one of them has to be that the more any tactic is repeated, the less effective it becomes.

The so-called resistance may be on the verge of painful reality, as the triumphant numbers of the Women’s March in late January was followed by disappointing numbers in the Women’s followup, and even smaller numbers in the parade-like, rather than protest-like, recent Science March. The related Peoples’ Climate March was this week’s march story with a march on immigrant rights and protections scheduled for the next week.

The Peoples’ Climate March was met by news that a federal judge may have approved the Trump Administration’s executive orders to delay and likely dismiss the last of President Obama’s climate protection orders. They did stumble on a small piece of luck as reportedly “tens of thousands” surrounded the White House. For a change President Trump was not enjoying another taxpayer funded golfing weekend at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, but was actually at the White House trying to establish that he was hard at it on the 100th day of his presidency. We can hope he looked out the window and that he heard the voices still trying to convince him not to pull the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord.

Organizers claimed that there were “300 sister marches” around the country, and that’s a good thing for sure, but coverage was spotting and targets were thin. Organizers have to be concerned though. The Peoples’ Climate March in September of 2014 was in New York City and the estimated crowd was 310,000 and touted as the largest climate march in history and was joined by global action largely initiated by 350.org, but also enjoying the sponsorship of 1500 organizations. The “tens of thousands” the Associated Press and New York Times reported in Washington, DC on this second march is a long, long way from 310,000 in New York City only 2 ½ years ago, especially in light of the fact that the recognition of the potential catastrophe inherent in unchecked climate change has grown exponentially everywhere in the world perhaps except in the antediluvian and atavistic crew bunkered down in the White House with the President.

Like it or not, marches are a numbers game. If organizers don’t want to take the risk of discounting the anger of their base and the urgency of their issue, they either have to prove their mass support with the tactic or risk inadvertently diminishing the perception of their base and its willingness to fight and take action. The Peoples’ Climate March did showcase a nice, creative tactic by pausing as they encircled the White House and letting out one sustained roar that was symbolically intended to “drown out” the voices of climate deniers ensconced in behind the columns.

If we’re going to sustain the energy and momentum of this moment, maybe we need more unexpected twists and turns like that roar and fewer times where the targets will be counting our boots on the ground, until we’re ready to rise up and swell the numbers to new heights again?

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Breitbart’s Bannon, More Proof that What Goes Around, Comes Around?

Bannon with Breitbart Crew

Little Rock   I don’t want to speak too soon, because I don’t want to put my dirty mouth on it, but as depressing as it has been to read the Stephen Bannon fan mail in the media since the election, it has been equally exhilarating to follow his comet’s rapid descent to hard ground. I don’t want to jinx this. He’s still in the West Wing of the White House, and he’s still carrying the title of strategic advisor to the president or some such, but it’s safe to say he’s currently taking a huge beating, including straight up slap downs from President Trump himself. No matter what ends up happening, how sweet it is this minute.

If nothing else all of the big whoops are finally getting some understanding about what it’s like over there at Breitbart and what’s it’s like to be on the receiving end of crazy-ville. When Andrew Breitbart was still alive, you could spend a minute speculating how much he personally believed all of his own site’s garbage spewing. He had been an early player in the Huffington Post startup, so the many cynical bones in my body could wonder if he simply saw an open niche he now had the ability to fill on the right, and went for it for the bucks and theater of it all. The more that comes out on scrutiny of Bannon, there’s no question here whatsoever. He lives in the darkness and embraces the night.

And, there’s some really creeping critters in his night it turns out. A recent story talked about how he is a huge fan of the discredited notion that history runs in 80-year cycles, and we are coming to the downside of one of those cycles. It’s a knocking on the door of the apocalypse notion that fits snugly with his chokehold on the necessity of disruption and chaos as an operating principle. He sees himself as a “Game of Thrones” character and “winter is coming.” Whether the President gets the message or just sees the storm clouds, I wouldn’t say, but clearly the fact that the new team at the National Security Council cashiered him off of the committee is worth at least one sigh of relief from the rest of us.

Bannon is made for the late night, afterhours show, not prime time. No matter what any of us think of Trump, we know for darned sure that he is never someone who likes wiping egg off of his face every day, and Bannon has been hurling them at him. First there was the divisive inaugural rant, roundly condemned everywhere. Then there was the visa fiasco that unraveled the Muslim ban for the president, making millions the face of his abuse.

As one of my organizers always says, “you gotta learn.” In Bannon’s case, he seems incapable. Trump only knows one thing well: how to run a family business. He still thinks the White House and the Presidency is just another huge division of his family’s business. Now Bannon has managed to get sideways with son-in-law, Jared, and alienate daughter, Ivanka. A lot of what Bannon believes and has done is just plain crazy, but not knowing that Trump is always going to default to family and getting crosswise with that foundational principle is just stupid.

The clock is ticking on Bannon. He’s probably debating how to save face now. The power in his job seems already gone.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Bannon and Conway: Part of a Movement, Just Not Ours!

New Orleans   I’ve come to a conclusion that has been obvious in many ways, but I was refusing to recognize it probably because I was still in denial at some level. Unbelievably, I, along with probably a gazillion others, have been waiting for the evil axis of Stephen Bannon and Kellyanne Conway to explode and disappear, caught in the vortex of one mind thumping disaster after another, victims of their own self-delusion and President Trump’s mercurial impatience and narcissism. I’ve finally realized that’s not going to happen, because they are walled in behind the embrace and ideology of a movement which ensconces them totally, allowing them to perfectly rationalize every sting and arrow of outrageous fortune as simply “haters,” as Conway calls them and a broad “opposition party,” as Bannon has referred to the press.

I get it now. Part of the prerequisite for working within movements and organizations dedicated and determined to win change is a relentless conviction of the rightness of your cause, the expectation of constant attack, and the resilient ability to bounce back and continue on course no matter what obstacles and arguments are thrown in your path. I’ve been there and done that. In the middle of such operations you always have to work hard to keep some doors and windows open to the outside or you’re caught in a tactical and strategic jail cell of your own making. What finally slapped me awake to recognize my own mirror was reading a long piece by Molly Ball in a recent issue of The Atlantic which took Kellyanne Conway as it’s subject with extensive quotes from Stephen Bannon, working as her cheerleader.

Let me share the clues:

Stephen Bannon says, “Remember, Kellyanne was not a mainstream pollster. She had every marginal act out there, Social issues, security moms, immigration – she was a movement-conservative pollster.”

Bannon told me [Molly Ball] Sean Trende’s “missing whites” theory and Conway’s polling on immigration formed the “intellectual infrastructure” of 2016’s populist revolt. He added that Conway was part of a “cabal” he had started to build with Jeff Sessions and Sessions’s then aide Stephen Miller, who is now a senior White House police adviser. “This is her central thing,” he said, “the reason I got to know her.”

The idea that she was merely a spokeswoman rather than a true campaign manager misses the point, Bannon said: Communications was everything to Trump…”No offense, this wasn’t the Bush campaign.”

“She can stand in the breach and take incoming all day long,” Steve Bannon…told me [Molly Ball]. That’s something you can’t coach.” She’s figured out that she doesn’t need to win the argument. All she has to do is craft a semi-plausible (if not entirely coherent) counternarrative, so that those who don’t want to look past the façade of Trump’s Potemkin village don’t have to.

Anyway, she [Kellyanne Conway] contended, nobody cared about “alternative facts” except the elite, out-of-touch intelligentsia who spend all day winding one another up in the echo chamber of Twitter and cable news. “It was haters talking to each other and it was the media.”

Quoting Jason Miller, a Trump campaign and transition team member, “One thing people don’t quite get is that she is a living, breathing folk hero for millions of people around the country.”

Need I say more? You get it right? In their movement they have created their own closed circuit channel where they are only interested in talking to the base for their revolution and only – at least for now – really communicating to their people where both of them are heroes in their own parade. The problem for their movement, like every movement, is that you at least have to neutralize the opposition to win, not simply discount and ignore them, and to the degree their movement depends on one leader, Donald Trump, they face the same risk as any charismatic movement faces, especially if the patience and support of the public continues to wane.

Until that happens, in the rush and adrenaline of their moment, the rest is all just water off a duck’s back, and haters going hoarse who they don’t hear, who are just spitting in the wind.

***

Please enjoy Ani DiFranco’s Play God.

Thanks to KABF.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Healthcare Lives Another Day, but Does Trump Have a Way to Win?

New Orleans   The Trump Tower has now been reduced to rubble. Ryan’s House is a shambles. Obamacare is now with us “for the foreseeable future,” according to the Speaker.

Right now the Affordable Care Act is better than nothing, but it could be nothing better.

The best news of the Trumpcare debacle and the inability of all of the concessions and arm twisting producing nothing is that it may have taught the President to write off the so-called Freedom Caucus, committee of no way. After having given away the store of all of the essential guarantees of the ACA, even the inclusion of children on parents’ policies until 26, which reportedly even the President understood was past the pale, the no-birds were still flying and demanding more, more and more. They had already pulled the bill so far right that what remains of moderates in the House of Representatives were forced to run from the bill and declare they would vote no. One lesson we can hope that Trump has learned is that these folks don’t negotiate in good faith, and it is worth walking away from their demands and their skinny 30 odd votes in their secret caucus, if you have a job that you want done.

Given the obstinence of the Republicans to countenance any fixes over the last seven years – and, yes, many are needed, as we have argued continually, especially capping deductibles – there might be an opportunity to get something good done if the President, the moderate Republicans, and the Democrats in the House and the Senate finally looked at “repair,” rather than “repeal and replace.” The polling on this recent abomination of a bill, thankfully pulled off the calendar, had indicated only 17% support and 56% opposition with 26% undecided. The Republican effort was failing most miserably among the so-called Trump base where as conservative Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan wrote that it was 26% “underwater” among non-college educated whites and an amazing 46% “underwater” in the 50 to 64 year old age group where people are more likely to forget to take their pills that day than they are to forget to vote. Trump couldn’t threatened to punish Congressman by mobilizing his base because they were in the bathroom losing lunch at the prospect that they would lose the healthcare they had gained under the Affordable Care Act.

If Trump wants to govern and we want to live through these next couple years, the President needs to stop all of this alt-right baloney and crazy flirting with the far right wing, and get closer to the where real deals are made. Even his former Breitbart Rasputin Stephen Bannon was reportedly disgusted with the concessions and bargaining posture of the far right, and that’s saying a mouthful.

I can remember presidents in Peru getting so low in popularity that they were hardly making it to two-digits. Trump is on his way there and the slope is no longer slippery, but fully greased unless he figures out a way to put the brakes on. Experts estimate that any new Congress only has about 200 days to get anything done for good or evil until mid-term elections suck the votes out of the room. For Trump and his gang 60 of those days are already gone, and we’ll all be counting on the death watch now.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail