Charity Flap

Posted May 21, 2004 at 5:43pm

Along with his reputation for hardball partisanship and aggressive fundraising, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) also has a legitimate and admirable record as an activist on behalf of homeless and mistreated children. On their behalf, we regret that DeLay has decided to cancel a charity event at the Republican National Convention that might have raised $2 million for a group called Celebrations for Children.

The flap over this charity event — and another since-canceled convention event previously sponsored by Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) that would have benefited children with cancer — does raise a legitimate question having to do with what ethics rules should govern Member-related charities. For now, the House ethics committee has given a green light for Members to participate in charity fundraisers at the party conventions this year, but the panel promised to revisit the rules next year.

In the case of DeLay’s event, we do not share the view of ethics hawk Fred Wertheimer that the leader “was engaged in a blatant effort to misuse his charity for his own political purposes and to abuse the nation’s tax laws.” Wertheimer also would like to prevent corporations, trade associations and other entities, including charities, from throwing “lavish and expensive parties” at the conventions.

Sorry, but “lavish and expensive parties” are a part of political conventions and somebody has to pay for them. It’s true, corporate lobbyists rub shoulders — and undoubtedly curry some favor — with Members and executive branch officials at the conventions. But there will never be — nor should there be — a time when taxpayers are required to publicly finance food and drink at conventions. And with unregulated soft money now outlawed, the political parties can hardly be expected to entertain guests with precious hard money.

To be sure, politically connected charities do involve the potential for abuse. As Roll Call’s Paul Kane reported last week, the Laura Bush Foundation for America’s Libraries has quietly raised $21 million from some of the biggest corporations in America. Are these companies giving out of the sheer love of libraries? Hardly: They want the White House to know that they are helping the first lady in her favorite cause. The same holds true for donors to DeLay’s charity; to the AIDS groups affiliated with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.); and the children’s cancer group that is being helped by Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.).

The House ought to adopt the standard that now governs the Senate. Under these rules, Members are not allowed to solicit charity money directly from corporate lobbyists. Laura Bush actually does not solicit money directly from anyone; others do it, including more than a few individuals who also raise political money for the president. Our primary recommendation in such matters is full disclosure — of the donors, the amounts and the purposes to which the money is put. The Internal Revenue Service does not require full disclosure of outlays by ordinary charities, but surely House and Senate rules can require it for charities connected with Members. And so they should.