THE RIGHT IDEA

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Advocacy groups nationwide now have one small reason to love Washington Republicans. Buried in the middle of the $792 billion tax cut passed by Congress this month is a provision that would help nonprofit organizations rally public support on political issues without worrying about losing their tax-exempt status. Under current IRS laws, nonprofits can spend just 20 percent of their budgets on political lobbying, and only 25 percent of that on what’s known as “grassroots lobbying” — efforts to raise the public profile of political fights, such as ad campaigns, leaflets and group trips to statehouses.

The new provision would lift the specific cap on grassroots lobbying, so that nonprofits can allocate their lobbying funds however they see fit.

For New York organizations that must drum up public political pressure to get their way in Albany, current IRS restrictions can be debilitating. “Direct lobbying without grassroots lobbying to back it up is ineffective as a rule on the issues we deal with,” said Michael McKee of New York State Tenants and Neighbors Information Service, which has coordinated many tenant campaigns.

While talking to state legislators is an important part of the group’s efforts to protect tenants, said McKee, some of its most effective work relies on marshaling the energies of tenants concerned about threats to rent regulation and other legal protections. McKee pointed out that the laws as they exist now are a consequence of a self-serving bias in the nation’s capital: Members of Congress would rather get useful information from advocacy groups than have busloads of angry protesters on their lawns.

President Clinton has already announced that he will veto the tax bill, and so for now, D.C. advocates working to liberate nonprofits from lobbying restrictions are just pleased that the provision even showed up. “We have no idea where it came from,” admitted Patrick Lemmon of OMB Watch, which monitors federal fiscal policy. “All we know is that it was in Senator William Roth’s [tax cut] proposal.” But, he said, it’s likely to reappear in some other tax bill soon, ready to keep both Republicans and Democrats happy.