News and analysis
July 15, 2014

Hewlett Bets $50-Million to Make Congress Work More Effectively

Idit Knaan for The Chronicle

In pledging $50-million to strengthen America’s "flailing democracy," the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation has stirred criticism among liberal groups that in doing so it has jettisoned some of its core values.

In its three-year "Madison Initiative," named after James Madison, an American founder who warned against the "mischiefs of faction," the foundation says it will support groups looking to make adjustments to the legislative process so Congress can perform its basic tasks like passing annual spending bills, says Daniel Stid, who will lead the effort for Hewlett.

Mr. Stid says he expects grantees to include "bona fide conservative organizations and bona fide liberal organizations," as well as nonpartisan "good government" groups.

"Neither side, or the center, has a monopoly on truth," he says. "Any solution that is going to work must work for people across the political spectrum, or it won’t have any staying power."

Questioning Hewlett

Critics, like Niki Jagpal, director of research and policy at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, called the effort "problematic."

Instead of supporting groups across the political spectrum, Ms. Jagpal said it would make more sense to dedicate more resources to current Hewlett grantees that work to alleviate poverty, attain social justice, and secure women’s reproductive health.

It isn’t likely, she says, that philanthropy will help spark a movement to improve the legislative process. But with Congress continuing to look for ways to cut federal spending, Ms. Jagpal says generating momentum about pressing policy goals is possible.

"If the situation weren’t so dire, it would make sense to focus on process," she says. "Right now, funding grass-roots efforts that help the most vulnerable among us would be a much more strategic use of funds."

The Hewlett Foundation’s goals are liberal, writes David Callahan on the website Inside Philanthropy, which addresses grant makers. But its approach to furthering those goals, he suggests, can be timid: While Hewlett provides seed money to "plant saplings" as part of its giving to preserve the environment, it is "hesitant to take on the clear-cutters."

"Foundations like Hewlett embrace policy goals that require prevailing in ideological combat," he writes, "yet they tend to shrink from such combat."

A ‘Fundamental Reset’

Mr. Callahan, who was a fellow at the left-leaning think tank Demos before he founded Inside Philanthropy, has engaged in a "sleight of hand," by assigning a set of ideological values to the Hewlett foundation, responds Mr. Stid.

The foundation, has long adhered to a set of guiding principles that includes a desire to be pragmatic and non-ideological in its grant making, Mr. Stid says.

There are limits to what philanthropy can do in making the legislative process work more smoothly, Mr. Stid says. A start might be looking into a "fundamental reset" of the 1974 Budget and Impoundment Control Act, the law that lays out the process by which Congress considers spending bills, he says. He didn’t offer specific suggestions but said the goal of the Madison Initiative was not to extinguish the current mood of political animosity but to make sure Congress can function.

"Polarization is less a problem to be solved and more of a predicament we need to learn to cope with," he says.

Many foundation leaders have come to believe Washington is incapable of engaging in productive debate, says Jason Grumet, president the Bipartisan Policy Center, which received a $600,000 Hewlett grant to study political reform.

For instance, he said, Congress’s inability to enact major changes in transportation policy over the past several years was a "deflating experience" for many foundation leaders that supported that effort.

Said Mr. Grumet, "Rather than throwing its hands up in frustration over federal dysfunction, as so many foundations have, Hewlett has seen that this is one of the fundamental challenges facing the nation and decided to lean into it and get to the core of the problem."

Send an e-mail to Alex Daniels.