Among the political chattering classes, there's a big buzz over a tiny activist organization called the Environmental Working Group.
Both liberals and conservatives, including the left-leaning New York Times editorial page and the right-leaning Wall Street Journal editorial page, have praised the group's farm subsidy database. The National Journal notes that the research vaulted the group "into the big leagues and, according to many observers, profoundly shaped the congressional debate over pending farm legislation." Hundreds of stories from The Washington Post on down have cited the group's findings over the past month.
Posted on the Internet, the Environmental Working Group database documents $71 billion in federal agricultural handouts from 1996-2000. Some of the money has gone to truly undeserving and ridiculous recipients, including prosperous companies, members of Congress, and part-time celebrity "farmers" such as professional basketball star Scottie Pippen, banking giant David Rockefeller, media mogul Ted Turner and ABC news personality Sam Donaldson.
As a longtime critic of government pork, I agree that the group's database is a commendable public service. But conservative opponents of farm subsidies should perhaps be a little warier of jumping into bed with these radical greens. The Environmental Working Group is not just a humble "non-profit research outfit," as it is being described by the mainstream press. It is a savvy political animal funded by deep-pocketed foundations with a big-government agenda of their own. And it is engaged in aggressive eco-lobbying that belies its image as an innocuous public charity dedicated to "educating" citizens.
The Environmental Working Group's main claim to fame is its anti-chemical fear-mongering. It scares pregnant women about the non-dangers of chlorinated water and says that even one bite of some fruit sprayed with pesticides could cause "dizziness, nausea and blurred vision." The group has also declared war on nail polish, hairspray, playgrounds, portable classrooms and ABC News correspondent John Stossel.
The Environmental Working Group, a non-profit, 501(c)(3) charity, thrives on funding from an array of extremely liberal foundations. One of its leading benefactors was the W. Alton Jones Foundation -- which failed miserably a few years ago in its widely-publicized attempt to scare people out of using plastic sandwich bags by claiming they contained endocrine-disrupting chemicals. The group continues to tout the foundation's efforts and plug its alarmist junk science book, "Our Stolen Future," on the group's Web site.
In 2000, the Environmental Working Group received a $1.62 million grant over three years from The Joyce Foundation. On its Web site, the eco-advocacy foundation describes the grant's purpose in apolitical terms as supporting "a concentrated program of agriculture policy reform." But in the foundation's tax filings, the purpose of the Environmental Working Group grant is stated in more explicit detail: "For work on 2002 Farm Bill."
Under federal tax laws, public charities can engage in limited political activities -- but the Environmental Working Group's zealous legislative lobbying raises questions about its status as a public charity. In a complaint to be filed this Friday with IRS Commissioner Charles Rossotti, the Bellevue, Wash.-based Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise charges that the Environmental Working Group's "excessive lobbying and politicking" activities are "clearly illegal and should (at a minimum) result in revocation of the organization's tax-exempt status."
The complaint charges that the group hid its lobbying political expenditures, failed to register as a lobbyist in California, submitted false or misleading reports with the IRS, and acted as a political action organization in violation of 501(c)(3) rules. Ron Arnold, executive vice president of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, warns: "The Environmental Working Group is not what it seems. Its goal is not protecting the environment. Its goal is power -- political power."
Make no mistake. The agenda of the Environmental Working Group and its financial backers is not simply to eliminate unfair public subsidies to agribusiness, but to cripple agribusiness altogether in favor of "organic" alternatives, increased regulation of manufacturers and tax-supported environmental conservation programs.
Sometimes, the enemies of enemies don't always make the best of friends.