Doubts About ACORN Pre-Date Current Scandal
By Garance Franke-Ruta
On Thursday, Congress voted to bar the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) from receiving federal funds. The vote wasn't the first time federal funding for the politically active antipoverty group became a subject of controversy in the House, though the circumstances this time around were very different.
For a blast from the past, read Molly M. Peterson in National Journal's CongressDaily on Sept. 28, 2005:
Action on a House bill to overhaul regulation of the government-sponsored enterprises has been at a standstill for months because of conservative Republicans' warnings that advocacy groups might use the legislation's affordable-housing subsidies to promote a liberal agenda.
Those lawmakers have mentioned the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now as an example of a group that, they fear, might use the proposed housing grants as a "slush fund" for lobbying and political activities.
An ACORN official said the group would not apply for those subsidies if the legislation is enacted, because it does not do the type of hands-on housing development projects that the grants would target.
Nevertheless, concerns raised by members of the conservative Republican Study Committee have prompted Majority Leader DeLay to postpone a House vote....
In a May 25 letter to DeLay, [GOP] lawmakers argued the proposed fund could finance third-party groups whose agendas go "far beyond simply increasing affordable housing for low-income Americans" and are "antagonistic" to free-market principles.
ACORN Executive Director Steven Krest called those concerns "totally absurd." Krest said the proposed fund is designed to subsidize the "hard costs" of building and renovating housing for low-income Americans.
He said ACORN does not do those types of projects, so it would not seek to participate in the affordable-housing fund.
But a House Republican aide said the ACORN Housing Corp. -- a nonprofit affiliate of ACORN that operates HUD-certified, Fannie Mae-approved housing counseling offices -- could obtain grants from the proposed fund. The aide said conservative lawmakers are concerned that those housing grants could end up subsidizing ACORN's political activities. "To the extent that you free up resources for the housing affiliate, then you're in a situation where you have other money that is now available for election activities and lobbying," the GOP aide said. "The money's fungible."
Krest said those concerns were unwarranted. He said ACORN's operations and budget are "totally separate" from those of its housing affiliate. "They are a 501(c)3 counseling and development agency that has no lobbying or political or voter-mobilization functions at all," Krest said of the ACORN Housing Corp. "That's not what they do."
The GSE legislation would prohibit groups participating in the affordable housing fund from engaging in political activities. Financial Services Capital Markets Subcommittee Chairman Richard Baker, R-La., the bill's chief sponsor, recently said any group that violates that rule would be permanently banned from receiving any more of the grants.
But Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., who chairs the RSC, and other members contend that language would not do enough to prevent groups like ACORN from misdirecting money from the affordable-housing fund to subsidize lobbying and political activities.
Those lawmakers are seeking language to make all organizations that engage in lobbying or election activities -- and all affiliates of those organizations -- ineligible to participate in the affordable housing fund. But House sources said Oxley and Baker oppose that language.
A House Financial Services Committee source said the RSC-favored language would prohibit charities that participate in the fund from even using their own money -- separate from the affordable housing funds -- for any type of political activities, including voter registration initiatives. "That's really quite extreme," the source said.
But the House GOP aide said that language would not infringe on housing advocates' rights to engage in political activities. "We're not saying these groups can't do what they're doing in terms of federal election activity and lobbying," the aide said. "All we're saying is if they're doing it, they can't participate in this fund. Or if they want to participate in the fund, they need to stop doing certain activities."
Web Politics Editor
September 18, 2009; 6:33 PM ET
Categories: Ethics and Rules
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