Catholic bishops’ abortion war chest stays secret

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During the waning days of the health reform debate, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) mounted a full-court press to block a compromise bill it believed would allow more government-funded abortions, a reading of the bill that other Catholic groups disputed.

To fight House passage of the Senate version of the legislation, the conference sent paid in-house lobbyists to Capitol Hill, tapped bishops to buttonhole members, and called church membership into action — all to push language restricting insurance plans paid for with government subsidies from providing abortions. According to news reports, the group focused pressure on Catholic members of the House, including Bart Stupak, the Michigan congressman who co-sponsored an amendment that led to tight abortion restrictions in the House reform bill. The bishops remained opposed to the reform package to the end, despite President Barack Obama’s signing of an executive order assuring federal money would not fund abortions.

How much money USCCB spent lobbying on the health bill, however, remains a closely-guarded church secret. Unlike corporate and advocacy groups that lobby Congress, churches and their affiliates are exempt from the Lobby Disclosure Act of 1995, which requires lobbyists to file disclosure forms detailing their spending and naming their lobbyists. And because churches and affiliates are also exempt from filing tax returns with the Internal Revenue Service, it is difficult for outsiders to track how much revenue the Bishops’ conference brings in and how much money it spends to influence legislation.

“They are not party to the same rules as everybody else and it’s very unfortunate,” said Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, an organization that advocates for abortion rights. “I think the public has a right to know who is working on what and how much money is being spent. These guys were willing to burn health care reform in order to push through their abortion agenda.”

The bishops ultimately failed to defeat health reform, but they took the fight to the top levels of the government. According to The Associated Press, Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, called House Speaker Nancy Pelosi from Rome to discuss abortion and health reform. Boston's Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley brought up the issue with President Barack Obama near the altar at the 2009 funeral for Sen. Edward Kennedy.

Ken Gross, a Washington lawyer and lobbying expert, said the religious lobby disclosure loophole is a carry-over from “exceptions in the IRS code that treat religious organizations in a favored fashion.”

The influence the bishops wielded on health reform led some members to call for increased IRS tax status scrutiny of USCCB. Rep. Lynn Woolsey of California pushed the idea in an op-ed piece for Politico, arguing that the bishops’ political tactics were “subsidized by taxpayers, since the Council enjoys tax-exempt status.” But since passage of the health reform bill, the push against the bishops seems to have lost steam. Woolsey’s office did not return repeated calls for comment on the issue. Nor did other Congressional Democrats who criticized the bishops.

The tax code allows churches to lobby, though most tax attorneys suggest holding the line at ten percent of revenue in order to protect their tax-exempt status, said Sister Simone Campbell, the executive director of Network, a social justice lobby of Catholic nuns. Network, which is not affiliated with the Catholic Church, is required to file quarterly reports. It spent $300,000 in 2009 to lobby on issues, including health reform. The organization’s support of the compromise bill outflanked the bishops’ conference, and was instrumental in winning House support of the bill.

Sister Campbell said the bishops’ conference was not the only religious organization that flew under the lobby disclosure radar. Representatives of most major churches, including Lutherans, Baptists and interfaith coalitions, were involved in the debate, she said. In her closing comments before House approval of the final bill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi named the Methodist Church as a supporter of the legislation. None of these churches filed lobby disclosure documents.

Churches that hired outside lobby firms on health reform (and thereby lost their disclosure filing exemption) include the First Church of Christ, Science, which spent $150,000 in 2009 pushing provisions to include payment for prayer treatments as medical care and other issues. That story came to light after reporters at the Los Angeles Times and other media outlets uncovered church spending in Senate lobby disclosure records.

But the Catholic bishops have remained mum. After repeated requests for information, a bishops’ conference spokesman declined to comment on questions about the size of the organization’s budget, how many in-house lobbyists it employs, and how much of its budget is spent lobbying Congress.

The exclusion doesn’t bother some in the religious community. Thomas Reese, a Georgetown research fellow, priest, and expert on the Catholic Church, said religious organizations do not profit from legislation and cannot contribute to political campaigns, so the danger of corruption is small. “If there is no danger of this corrupting the political system through the election process, then who cares?” Reese said.

Other Catholics disagree. “It’s something that actually concerns us as an organization,” said Chris Korzen, executive director of Catholics United, a Catholic advocacy group that is often at odds with church leadership over policy. “This is money that folks are contributing at mass as part of collection.”