On February 29, 1996, the members of the House Commerce Committee gathered to consider the future of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. At issue was whether tax dollars would continue to flow to the agency—a question that was being asked with increasing frequency in the reform-minded 104th Congress. Unbeknownst to most of the members of the Committee, however, the majority of the witnesses appearing at the hearing were themselves financially dependent on federal tax dollars. Not surprisingly, each witness—from groups as diverse as National Public Radio and the National Asian American Telecommunications Association—took the stand to argue for continued federal spending on public broadcasting.
A recent Heritage Foundation study revealed that the Commerce Committee’s experience was not atypical. Over half of all the witnesses who appeared before House and Senate committees in the 104th Congress were funded directly by the federal taxpayer. In 1995, 35 percent of congressional witnesses were federal employees; of those that remained, one in three was a government grant recipient.
On the opening day of the 105th Congress, the House of Representatives adopted a change in its rules designed to give members more information about the background of congressional witnesses. Sponsored by California Representative John Doolittle (R), the new rule—called “Truth in Testimony” by its supporters—requires that the written statements submitted to the committee by all congressional witnesses include the amount and source of any federal grants or contracts received by the witness or any organizations they represent.
As the following interview with Representative Doolittle makes clear, “Truth in Testimony” is a continuation by other means of the battle fought in the 104th Congress to limit the lobbying activities of taxpayer funded groups. What effect this rule change will have, however, is unclear. Although the Doolittle rule received a majority vote of the House and the support of key members such as Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Livingston (R-LA) and Rules Committee Chairman Gerald Soloman (R-NY), its enforcement depends on the active compliance of individual members and the continued interest of the public at large.
PHILANTHROPY: What does the new rule do and why was it needed?
MR. DOOLITTLE: For the first time, it requires all witnesses appearing to testify before a House committee to disclose any contracts or grants they have received in the past three years. Over half the witnesses that appear before congressional committees, they or the organizations they represent receive government grants and/or contracts. Members of Congress may know as a general rule that there are organizations up here that get grants, but they need to know specifically who’s getting what. Frequently, what’s happening is the organizations that are getting government grants and contracts are the very ones that are showing up in committees lobbying for increased federal appropriations so that they can get larger government grants and contracts. We just think that members need to know that the witnesses appearing before them have a vested interest in the matter before the committee.
PHILANTHROPY: And once this information is made available, what do you expect it to accomplish?
MR. DOOLITTLE: Our goal is to balance the budget and shrink the size of the federal government. And if we’re constantly increasing appropriations for nonessential programs, we’re not going to get to that goal. So we see this in the spirit of full disclosure. I suppose liberal Democrats who get the information probably won’t change their votes, but the people who think of themselves as conservatives realize the nature of the special interests appearing before them trying to cloak their appeals under the rubric of some good cause. It’s a way to take what is the truth and reveal it to decision-makers.
PHILANTHROPY: How did it come to this point? A lot of people might think, “Why doesn’t Congress already know where its money is going?”
MR. DOOLITTLE: Maybe it’s because most of us, we weren’t really let in on the game, so to speak. And when you’re not in on the game you don’t upset the players who are at the table playing the game.
PHILANTHROPY: Do you mean that there is a spoils system in place that some don’t want disturbed?
MR. DOOLITTLE: There’s a system in place that’s dolling out billions of dollars for this, that and the other thing and really the public at large is pretty much excluded from that system. But when the members get [information on federal grants and contracts], the public’s going to get it. I hope the people who are watching what Congress does will take the information that’s provided here and disseminate it. Because I think that if the public knew what is going to be revealed here, it would upset them to know that these things continue to go on.
PHILANTHROPY: Many of our readers who are grantmakers themselves are interested in which groups are government grant recipients. How can they get that information?
MR. DOOLITTLE: Under this rule it must be provided to the committee. They can go to the committee and ask for the information. And I hope, frankly, that they will do that. One feature of my original proposal was not adopted by the House and this concerns me. My initial proposal included a penalty. If the information was not provided to the committee then all the testimony would be stricken from the record. I suspect we’re only talking about one or maybe two or three committees where this might be something to watch. But I think it will be important to get the enforcement we desire to have people routinely inquire of the committees what the disclosure is.
PHILANTHROPY: Is this new rule something that flows from the effort last year led by Representatives McIntosh and Istook to restrict lobbying by government grantees?
MR. DOOLITTLE: Without question. This is another way to skin the cat. And the Senate could adopt exactly the same rule and we’d have the whole thing accomplished. The problem was the White House, trying to get this past them. So we just did it in the rules. We run the House, and as long as we run it, this is the way it’s going to be done. I would think the next move would be to go and get the Senate to put this into its rules.