Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

Let's Get Political (Environmental Groups Must Organize or Die)

Suggested Citation: Kerr, Andy and Sally Cross. 1996. Let's Get Political. Wild Earth. Vol. 6, No. 1. Spring. 72-74. 

By Andy Kerr and Sally Cross

With their current organizational structure, most environmental groups buy into a bargain that deprives them of the two most potent tools to stop the onslaught on environmental protections—mobilizing the public to lobby elected officials, and opposing or supporting candidates for office. Environmental groups' old paradigm of insider lobbying and public education barely held even in the 1980s, and is failing to stop the rollback of environmental laws in the 1990s. As we look toward a new century, the environmental movement must face the need for a fundamental reorganization of both its organizational structure and its tactics.

In 1970, the year of the first Earth Day, environmentalists developed their political muscle. During the following decade, Congress and a series of Presidents responded by enacting--with bi-partisan support--sweeping environmental laws including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act and the National Forest Management Act. As a result, environmentalists could participate in National Forest planning, comment on environmental impact statements, and engage in other non-political public policy activities to implement these new laws.

Environmentalists gained government access in both the legislative and executive branches, and increased the use of the judicial branch. The environmental movement had become an institution. Our ranks, both professional and volunteer, swelled with public policy-types comfortable arguing over issues such as how many parts per billion of some toxic compound was safe; and we took for granted the environmental laws.

In 1980, President Ronald Reagan made the environment a partisan issue. The environmental movement responded by abandoning its bipartisan tradition and embracing the Democratic Party. In the process, national environmental groups and the Democratic Congressional leadership struck an unconscious bargain: The Democrats would make sure that no horrible environmental legislation passed, but no great environmental legislation would pass either. Once this deal was sealed, the Democrats took environmentalists for granted, as they did African Americans and organized labor, and the muscle we once had turned into flab.

In 1992, the Democrats won the White House, and environmentalists were optimistic. For the first time in more than ten years, we thought we had both a Congress and a President who supported the environment. Unfortunately, after a decade of embracing Democratic candidates, environmentalists nonetheless had lost an environmental majority in Congress. The Democratically-controlled 103rd Congress turned out to be the worst for the environment in modern history (although it has since been outdone by the present 104th).

Upon the January assumption of top Congressional positions by Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole, the national environmental movement found itself without access. Gone was the national environmental groups' best defense: killing bad bills.

Today, politicians don't pay a price for voting against the environment. Until they do, the Earth doesn't have a chance. Our opponents have made sure that politicians do pay for voting to protect the environment.

As a movement, we're in a bind of our own making--politicians feel comfortable voting against environmental protections that have widespread public support. We have failed to translate the environment's strong public support into effective political action; that's why we're now fighting a massive effort to roll back environmental laws. To regain our bi-partisan environmental majority, we environmentalists must dramatically change the way we operate.

A systemic problem with most environmental organizations is their designation under the Internal Revenue Code. Most have chosen a tax status that severely limits their use of the most effective tools to protect the environment.

Why do they do that? Most environmental groups have section 501(c)(3) tax status, which provides significant benefits, including federal and state government tax subsidies; but these benefits come at a price. All 501(c)(3) organizations are:

1. Limited in the amount of lobbying they can do to 20% or less of their budget, with a maximum of $1 million per year. By way of comparison, the National Wildlife Federation's budget is nearly $100 million per year.

2. Further limited to 5% or less of their budget, with a maximum of $250,000, for grassroots lobbying efforts. A group with a multi-million dollar budget can only spend a tiny fraction of its budget reaching out to the public, saying: “call Congressman X at Y number and tell him to vote no on this bill.”

3. Prohibited from supporting or opposing the election of candidates to office. In Oregon, according to the Western States Center, extractive industries contributed nearly $2 million dollars to candidates for the state legislature in the 1994 election. In contrast, environmentalists contributed just over $46,000.

Is anyone surprised that we're losing ground?

Many groups have felt that the advantages of being a 501(c)(3) outweigh the disadvantages. Even since the last election, few have made plans to change. Although many now talk about grassroots organizing, until they change, their tax structure prohibits them from mobilizing that concerned public as an effective political force--organizing them to flood Congress and state legislatures with calls opposing anti-environmental bills. Our opponents know better, and have out-organized us in the public arena, at the ballot box, and in Congress. But a solution exists.

With little extra work, environmental groups can keep their current 501(c)(3) operations, and “affiliate” themselves with another non-profit organization sharing a mission. This affiliated group gives up the tax subsidies and benefits in return for losing restrictions on activities. This other type of organization is known as a section 501(c)(4). Such close affiliation has been affirmed by the US Supreme Court.1

This is not an unusual structure. Many groups, including the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club, and social action groups ranging from the pro-choice NARAL to the religious right Oregon Citizens Alliance, are organized as affiliated organizations.

Groups like The Wilderness Society and National Audubon Society have always been operated as (c)(3) organizations. The National Wildlife Federation and Friends of the Earth have affiliated (c)(4)s, but they have not been active. We hope this will change.

On 1 October 1995, Oregon Natural Resources Council, a (c)(3) since its inception, changed its name to ONRC Fund, and affiliated itself with a new non-profit organization named ONRC Action. This requires that we ensure that the “subsidized” money (the Supreme Court's term) we receive from tax-deductible contributions and foundations is used only for the exempt purposes of education, research, litigation (yes, litigation is okay since it is seeking to enforce existing law, not change it), and agency monitoring and appeals.

ONRC Action is funded by members' non-deductible contributions to support lobbying and mobilizing the public to speak out against bad bills. The (c)(4) ONRC Action has established Political Action Committees (separate federal and state PACs because of differing limits on contributions and expenditures).

Financially, we expect the “new” ONRC to do as well or better. Most of our supporters are motivated by the actions we take, and we can take a wider variety of actions as affiliated groups. ONRC's administrative costs have increased during the start-up phase, but should return to normal after we get used to accounting for the affiliated organizations.

In Oregon, at least, politicians in both parties are going to start paying a price for voting against the environment. Working with the other Oregon environmental PACs, ONRC Action PAC will be a player in the 1996 elections.

An affiliated structure makes sense for many, if not most, environmental groups. The environmental movement as we have known it is finally dead. We should all thank Newt Gingrich for putting us out of our misery.

Many environmental organizations have not recognized this death, but soon will. Some will resurrect themselves to effectively respond to this new world order; others will not. Those who survive will make the environment a bi-partisan issue again, just as the crime issue is now. Each party will compete to do the most for the environment. Never again will we environmentalists allow ourselves to become dependent on one political party.

We must stop being just policy wonks and get to work mobilizing the vast public support for environmental protections as a grassroots political force in Congress, in state and local governments, and at the ballot box. Labor organizer Joe Hill's reputed last words to his supporters were, before going to his state-sponsored end, “Don't mourn my death. Organize!”

To do so, we must have the right tax status.

Andy Kerr is executive director of ONRC Action. He works in Portland and lives in Joseph, Oregon. After 19 years, he can finally tell you—on company time—not to vote for that salmon-hating, clearcutting “pimp for the timber industry” Senator Mark Hatfield (the senator's self-describing quote); but he need not, for the pimp is retiring.

Sally Cross is political director of ONRC Action. A long-time campaign organizer, she has worked on numerous statewide and local candidate and initiative campaigns, and now organizes ONRC's advocacy and legislation work. She's looking forward to her first election season with ONRC PACs.