Proposed Restrictions Threaten Advocacy Rights of Federal Grant Recipients

Conservative House Republicans have threatened to oppose various funding measures and other pending legislation if their bill, which would limit political advocacy of federal grant recipients, is not passed by both Houses. Known as the Istook Amendment, this bill would restrict the amount of private funds that federal grant recipients could expend on a broad range of advocacy activities. Current law prohibits federal grantees from using grant funds to lobby, that is, to try to influence legislative activity. But the Istook Amendment would go beyond current law to limit the amount of private funds a grantee could spend. Moreover, under the Istook Amendment, the types of activities that would be limited are much broader than those covered under the current definition of lobbying. In addition to traditional lobbying activities, the following would be restricted: contributions to or participation in federal, state, or local political campaigns; attempts to influence public opinion on an issue, for example, through op-ed pieces in local papers; participation in litigation in which any federal, state, or local agency is a party (e.g., as an expert witness or amicus curiae); and purchasing goods or services from, or trading with, any entity whose own political advocacy expenditures, in the previous year, exceeded 15% of its total expenditures.

This information would have to be reported each year to the granting agency or agencies, who, in turn, would make such information available to the public on the Internet.

The proposed legislation states that a grant recipient who exceeds his or her political advocacy limit in a given year would be ineligible for federal grants for the following 5 years. In addition, any private citizen could sue a federal grant recipient if he or she believed the grant recipient had exceeded the political advocacy limit. The burden of proof of compliance with this legislation would be on the grant recipient, rather than on the person bringing the claim. The standard of proof in such suits would be 'clear and convincing evidence'--a standard stricter than that used in most civil proceedings.

Several moderate Republican legislators have proposed alternatives to this legislation. One stipulates that individual grant recipients would be excluded from the new law. However, because a grant to an individualprincipal investigator (PI) goes directly to the PI's institution, it is possible that individual grant recipients would still be subject to some or most of these restrictions and would have to report the same detailed information to the institution, which would then report the political advocacy information to the granting agency. In such a scenario, universities and colleges may have to include the individual researcher's advocacy efforts with their own when calculating their political advocacy limit. This, in turn, may compel the institutions to impose even stricter advocacy limits on their individual grant recipients, so as not to exceed their upper limit.

APA, working with a coalition of more than 500 organizations, opposed this bill and helped alert Congress to the adverse impact this legislation would have on individual researchers, colleges, and universities. The Public Policy Office also sent an action alert to APA members, asking them to get involved in activities at their home institutions or to contact their congressional representatives directly to express their concerns about this legislation. Reports from Capitol Hill indicate that this type of grassroots advocacy has been particularly effective, and such efforts should continue to ensure that this legislation does not hinder research.

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