by Ken Feltman
(Originally published in Politico)
Is the effort to defund Planned Parenthood an ideological attack by pro-life conservatives? Is the effort based on the fact that Planned Parenthood performs some services that many Americans find objectionable, even abhorrent? Is it part of a growing awareness that our federal government funds thousands of organizations that could survive without public funding?
It is all of these and more. The effort to defund National Public Radio was similar. Others will follow.
Rather than judging each defunding debate separately, perhaps we should step back and decide whether, as Americans, we want Washington deciding to support certain groups and causes, but not others.
Citizens of Europe’s social democracies trust those decisions to government much more frequently than we do. We have a culture and tradition of volunteerism and charitable giving. Our generous citizens support many causes and charitable activities. But the clear right of individual citizens to contribute to favored causes becomes murkier when tax dollars and tax deductions are involved.
The debate might start with a discussion of why government began to assume more of the decision-making regarding which groups receive funds. Most of these groups continue to benefit from charitable giving by individuals. Our tax system allows taxpayers to receive a deduction for contributions to “qualified” causes — even causes that a sizeable minority or sometimes a majority of Americans find objectionable.
Perhaps we should go back to the beginning and decide whether we want our tax system to be an incentive for certain behavior, even the most generous charitable behavior. Do we accept the idea that the tax code can reward citizens who insulate their homes, for example? If we endorse the idea that the tax system can be manipulated to produce certain behavior, who picks the behavior we want rewarded? Reaching consensus will be difficult. We may conclude that the present system, with Congress deciding, is the best or most convenient method.
All this brings us to where we are right now: If we wish to change the government’s priorities when it funds groups, we need to change the composition of Congress. Ah! That is exactly why we are having this debate: Congress began to change with last November’s election.