November 18, 2011

Secretive 'Super Committee' Gives Nonprofits a Super Headache

The Congressional "super committee" that is seeking ways to close the federal budget deficit is giving the nonprofit world a super headache.

Nonprofit advocates have waged a fierce lobbying campaign to convince the committee, which is supposed to make its recommendations next week, not to limit the value of the charitable deduction in its quest for more revenue. But despite their entreaties, they have not been able to get the 12 members of the secretive panel to spill the beans about what's under consideration.

"They're all saying, 'We're not making any comments,' " says David L. Thompson, vice president for public policy at the National Council of Nonprofits, which has mobilized an army of nonprofit activists across the country to contact super-committee members and other members of Congress.

Republicans have reportedly floated the idea of limiting charitable deductions and other tax breaks as part of a plan that would also lower income-tax rates. But nonprofit representatives say they can't get a clear answer about whether that proposal, or any other plan to trim charitable tax incentives, is winning support.

"People are being cagey about what is or isn't in the discussion," says Andrew Schulz, vice president for legal and government relations at the Council on Foundations.

He says that is different from the usual routine for Congressional deliberations, when "eventually you get to someone who will either reassure you or tell you that the bad news is coming."

If it's any consolation, Nick Giordano, a lawyer who lobbies for Independent Sector, a coalition of charities and foundations, says the nonprofit world is not alone: Everyone is having trouble getting solid details about the super committee's discussions.

"Obviously, this is the talk of the town," he says. "There's no shortage of information. The shortage is figuring out what's accurate. That's much more challenging."

Mr. Schulz says he has gotten more pessimistic in recent days about whether the committee will propose limits on the charitable-giving incentive, concluding the odds are 50-50.

"The people who are most optimistic are optimistic because they don't think a deal will be reached," he adds.

The committee has until midnight next Wednesday to propose at least $1.2-trillion in spending cuts and tax increases, although it needs to offer a plan even earlier than that so the Congressional Budget Office has time to review it. If it fails? In theory, mandatory across-the-board spending cuts would take place in January 2013. But that's a long way off, so it's hard to predict what will actually happen.

Meanwhile, says Mr. Giordano, "it's going to be a bouncing ball until Wednesday."