Sorting out the bishops' lobbying budget

Scott Alessi| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
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What seemed at first glance to be a fairly straightforward report on the increase in lobbying efforts by religious groups has turned into quite a complicated ordeal.

As I wrote last week, the U.S. bishops' conference had disputed a report by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life about religious advocacy groups in Washington, D.C. which stated that the U.S. bishops spend upwards of $26 million each year on advocacy efforts. Sister Mary Ann Walsh, media director for the USCCB, took Pew researchers to task for the numbers they came up with and for what seemed like a broad definition of lobbying.

As I originally noted in my blog post last week, Walsh pointed out that Catholic News Service was among the items included in Pew's report under the bishops' lobbying/advocacy budget, which Walsh felt was quite a stretch. As it turns out, Pew researchers agree with her.

Though disputes over the report were only mentioned as an aside in my original post, it still drew the attention of the Pew Forum, who called today in hopes of clarifying the issue. Alan Cooperman, associate director of research for the Pew Forum, explains:

"What the report said is that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' publicly reported $26.7 million in expenditures for 'policy activities' (the USCCB’s term, not ours) seems to 'blur the line between advocacy and non-advocacy initiatives' by including CNS in that budget category together with the USCCB’s Government Relations office, its 'Pro-Life Activities' and its 'Human Development, Justice and Peace' program, among other initiatives."

Allen Hertzke, the lead researcher on the study, also issued a response to Walsh, essentially agreeing with her point on CNS and calling for more precise data, which would lead to a more accurate report.

Adds Cooperman, "As Professor Hertzke explained in his response to Sister Mary Ann, we relied on the figures for all the groups in the report on publicly available financial statements, which is important for transparency, consistency and verifiability. And we acknowledged in the report that some organizations' publicly reported budget figures made it difficult to separate advocacy and non-advocacy initiatives; this was clearly the case for the USCCB."

Since the USCCB's available data didn't break down its spending on "policy activities," Cooperman says, it was impossible to distinguish between actual advocacy efforts and things like CNS (which it turns out is actually not even part of the USCCB budget, leaving an unsolved mystery of why it was on the report to begin with). Pew Forum was reluctant to move away from the standard of publicly available information, Cooperman says, but the USCCB's complaints about the report led them to offer to revise the figure if more accurate data were supplied by the bishops' conference.

Thankfully, all of this will hopefully be sorted out soon. USCCB secretary of communications Helen Osman has informed the Pew researchers that she will provide a breakdown of their spending to clarify what does and does not go toward actual advocacy, and Pew will revise their numbers using this data.

The end result will be a more accurate number of what the bishops actually spend on advocacy efforts. But with a big election year ahead of us, it remains to be seen just how influential their voice will be in Washington--and that's something you can't put a price tag on.

[UPDATE: Faith in Public Life reports that the USCCB wasn't the only group that took issue with the numbers reported by the Pew Forum, as now PICO (People Improving Communities through Organizing) says their budget isn't as high as what the report suggests.]