October 23, 2013

After the Shutdown: an Action Plan for Foundations

In recent weeks, large majorities of the public, regardless of political affiliation, told pollsters that they thought the government shutdown was a mistake. That may be the only positive result of what happened in Washington this month: Many Americans learned just how important the role of the government is in our daily lives.

It is now up to leaders in philanthropy to step up to the challenge of reinforcing the message while taking steps to end the dysfunction in our democracy that prevents too many nonprofits and foundations from achieving their missions.

We must act quickly: The deal that re-opened government essentially guaranteed we’ll be facing the same challenge in January as we faced in October. But next time the stakes will be much higher. If Congress fails to reach a real budget deal, virtually every government program will face automatic spending cuts that are far more severe than those in place now.

Some cynics will ask whether this is possible: America seems too politically divided for foundations to make a real difference.

Yet a new survey for Esquire-NBC News has provided a vastly different picture. It found a diverse and growing majority that is bound by a surprising set of shared ideals. The study uncovered a new American center that is interested in compromise and moving forward on issues of national importance, including the budget. “The center is real, passionate, and persuadable,” NBC said in a piece about the poll.

To mobilize the center in a way that matters, foundations and nonprofits need to focus on three dates in the budget battle:

December 13: the deadline for a congressional committee to provide recommendations on tax and spending matters.

January 15: the last day Congress can approve a spending bill to avoid another partial government shutdown. If Congress simply passes an extension of current spending at this time, deep automatic spending cuts will take effect.

February 7: The day the country will default on paying its creditors if Congress has not previously approved an increase in the debt ceiling.

Foundations can influence what happens in the aftermath of this fall’s debacle in a wide range of ways. We can finance research, policy development, public education, communications, and coalition building, as well as advocacy and organizing efforts to deal squarely with the changes that are essential to repairing democracy. And, perhaps just as important, we can all speak out. Our grantees, the media, and politicians listen to us. Here’s what we need to say and do:

Move fast to deal with the budget. In the short range, we need to push Congress to reach a budget deal by the December-January deadlines. We must convey the message that this deal must be balanced, meaning it must reduce spending intelligently and generate revenues fairly with results that help the middle class, protect low-income families, and create jobs. Most important, it needs to be long term so it creates certainty in the business community and among the public.

Unfortunately, some members of Congress insist that only spending cuts be made and will not vote for revenue increases. This refusal to use a balanced approach is what has led to the budget standoffs over the past two years. The government shutdown should be an opportunity to change the dynamics. As grant makers, we need to promote a unified message that a balanced approach that includes increased tax revenues is the only way forward.

This can be done in a fair way. As corporate profits are getting higher, corporate taxes are getting lower. Some huge corporations, like Boeing, General Electric, and Verizon, have paid no federal taxes in recent years. The wealthiest Americans are dodging their fair share, too, with many paying tax rates that are, in effect, lower than those paid by many middle-class families. If we s require the richest among us to pay their fair share, we can stop the automatic spending cuts and invest in job creation.

Even so, painful spending reductions will need to be considered. But as Congress looks to make changes in programs like Medicare and Social Security, protecting the most vulnerable among us must be a top priority. Many proposed spending cuts have long been protected by powerful special interests, such as subsidies to oil companies, and such reductions need to be adopted long before eliminating programs that serve the neediest.

Focus the conversation on structural changes. Some experts have argued that the government shutdown is a manifestation of political gerrymandering. As congressional districts look less and less like the makeup of the electorate, lawmakers vote for policies that are even more distant from the will of the majority.

There is no better evidence of this than the makeup of the districts of the 80 Republicans who signed a letter calling for the government shutdown unless all the money was pulled from Obamacare. All represent gerrymandered “safe” districts and voters whose composition is diverging from the rest of the American electorate, as the Cook Political Report noted.

For example, the average district of those 80 Republicans is 75 percent white, while the average House Republican district is 63 percent white. Even though America has become more diverse, the average Republican district actually became two percentage points more white in 2012.

Without trying to shape particular policy outcomes, as grant makers we should be promoting changes in the redistricting process to make it more fair and transparent.

Ironically, the safe seats created by gerrymandering have increased the number of intraparty primary challenges. A new verb, being “primaried,” has emerged to reflect how an extreme vocal minority has captured the primary process. If an elected official compromises, he or she will inevitably face a primary challenge, in which turnout is generally low and people with extreme views can have their way. In the last election, we saw an increasingly smaller number of moderates making it on the election ballot for the general voters to consider as a result of this flawed system.

We also need to make voting easier. The voter-suppression efforts occurring in many states is eroding our democracy and introducing bias into our electoral system. Many reasonable structural improvements have been floated, including same-day registration, early-voting opportunities, and holding elections on days when most people don’t have to work. Grant makers and nonprofits must come together to promote these types of improvements.

Ask people to think hard about the role of government. No matter how much the nation does to make structural changes, unless we deal with the broader underlying feelings about the role of government, we will continue to have manufactured crises like this last budget breakdown. Certainly in the aftermath of this recent government shutdown, it is easier to identify the government’s importance. However, we all know memories fade.

This is where philanthropy can play a pivotal role through our grant making, our power to gather people from disparate parts of every community, and our collective voice.

We believe government can improve the quality of life in America, and it should be accountable; we want a government that works efficiently and effectively; and we want a government that serves the common good, protecting the public and giving people in need a helping hand. These are common values expressed by large portions of the public. However, for more than 30 years, we have allowed criticism of government to be used by anti-government zealots “to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub,” as Grover Norquist once said. This must end.

Not everybody in philanthropy may agree with this view of the role of government. But all of us share a common belief in fair and transparent systems that allow voters to promote their will. Like the new American center, grant makers can work collaboratively across ideological divides to promote changes that strengthen our democracy.

Every grant maker has a great deal at stake, whether we support social services, the arts, advocacy, education, or other causes and whether our grant making is local, national, or international. We won’t reach any grand goals on our agenda if Washington doesn’t work.

People in Washington like to joke that it’s easy to tell who in our midst is a politician. It is the person with a finger in the air, feeling which way the wind blows. Our job as grant makers is not to identify which way the wind blows; it is to change the way the wind blows. It takes time, commitment, listening, and persistence. It also means taking risks by speaking out for the betterment of democracy even when that is not popular or trendy.

Wind-shifting is never easy. But our democracy is at stake.

Gary Bass is executive director of the Bauman Foundation, and Patricia Bauman is president of the fund, which her father created.