Let ACORN Get Its House in Order

In the 1980s, conservatives began what they called a campaign to "defund the left," starting with groups such as the Audubon Society and the Urban League. Now they're going after ACORN.
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ACORN CEO Bertha Lewis announced that former Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger will lead an independent inquiry into the "organizational systems and processes" of the embattled group's social services, and said that ACORN will make public the results of that inquiry. This is an important step in getting this organization back on track.

A lot has been said about the videotaped hoax that was perpetrated on ACORN and how the staff in a few of their field offices responded. And it's certainly true that there have been significant problems at ACORN over the years.

But we all need to ask what the recent events involving ACORN mean to families and communities across America.

We face multiple crises in jobs, health care, housing, education, and other problems -- and the out-of-control influence of corporate money in policy making.

Nonprofit organizations that stand up for the powerless in our society and that provide vital services in our communities have never been needed more than they are today.

This comes at a time when nonprofits are being asked to meet dramatically increased needs with substantially reduced funding.

And yet, at this moment of greatest need, both houses of Congress have set an unbelievably ill-advised and dangerous precedent.

Responding to those made-for-YouTube incidents and their pumped up circulation on Fox News, all Republicans and most Democrats voted to prohibit ACORN from ever competing for a federal contract or federal grant.

Congress stepped out of its legislative role and rushed to judgment, acting as judge, jury, and prosecutor. That is not how we should do things in this country.

I'm not surprised, though. Targeting ACORN is part of a decades-long effort to "defund the left."

It's not the first time we have heard that word "defund." For thirty years, the right wing and their allies in Congress have tried to "defund" nonprofit organizations that organize and advocate on behalf of everyday Americans.

In the 1980s, conservatives began what they called a campaign to "defund the left," starting with groups such as the Audubon Society and the Urban League.

The Reagan administration, acting on the basis of a Heritage Foundation proposal, proposed an executive order that would have prohibited an organization that received federal funds from using its own funds to engage in issue advocacy or lobbying. That un-American proposal set off so much protest from nonprofit, religious, and charitable organizations that the proposal was dropped.

In 1995, Rep. Ernest Istook (R-OK) tried again. He introduced an amendment that would have prohibited nonprofits who received federal funds from lobbying even with nonfederal dollars. A coalition of nonprofit groups fought that legislation and it was defeated.

And now today, as right-wing activist Andrew Breitbart told the Washington Post, "everybody that is a conservative news junkie thinks that ACORN is the most important institution for us to uncover to the American public."

ACORN -- despite all of its problems -- does work that is worth saving. They have helped tens of thousands of responsible low- and moderate-income families understand their rights and prevent foreclosures so they could stay in their homes. Its 400,000 members have played a leading role in winning local ordinances that require big companies that receive public dollars to pay a living wage. It has helped 1.7 million poor and working class people register to vote.

As ACORN takes steps to get its house in order, Congress should take a deep breath and give this process time to work.

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