12/01/2011 06:55 pm ET Updated Jan 31, 2012

Religious Advocacy: It's Not All About Congressional Activity

As the primary researcher for the Pew Forum's report "Lobbying the Faithful: Religious Advocacy Groups in Washington, D.C.," I appreciate this opportunity to respond to the concerns expressed by Sister Mary Ann Walsh in "Pew Religious Advocacy Report: Why Comparing Apples and Oranges Leads to Lemons."

Sister Mary Ann seems to equate religious advocacy or lobbying to "congressional activity," "money changing hands" and "electioneering." However, the Pew Forum study adopts a broader definition of religious advocacy. As the report makes clear, it is not limited solely to lobbying as defined by the Internal Revenue Service. Rather, it includes efforts by various organizations, including the USCCB, to inform their constituencies and the public about issues of concern and to help shape public policy on those issues.

One reason for using this broader definition of advocacy is that it accords, not only with common usage, but with the way that many religious groups view themselves and their efforts in Washington. In my interviews for the study, I found that many religious leaders dislike the connotations of the term "lobbying" and do not consider themselves to be lobbyists. Instead, they see themselves as advocates, not for narrow self-interest, but on behalf of those who often do not have a voice in the corridors of power. Their goals are to help the poor, the sick, the persecuted and the helpless, often by means that include educating the public or raising awareness. Those who read the report will quickly see that in no sense is it an attack on the USCCB or any other religious group. It makes clear that the groups advocate on a broad range of issues that are part of their core missions, which is why we include the groups' mission statements and analyze their various advocacy methods, which include a great deal more than lobbying members of Congress.

Sister Mary Ann also objects to the $26 million figure we report for the USCCB's advocacy budget. As we acknowledge in the methodology of the report, determining a group's budget for religious advocacy is complicated by the fact that religious advocacy groups vary in their missions and publicly report their expenditures in different ways. For groups whose principal mission is advocacy -- a category that includes most of the groups in the study -- we used the entire budget, even though these figures include administrative and fundraising expenses. As the report explains, "if the organization's principal mission is advocacy, the administrative and fundraising costs are reasonably considered to be in the service of advocacy." For groups with missions that go beyond advocacy -- groups that also provide social services, for example -- we sought to identify the budget category (or categories) in the organization's public financial statements that best correspond to our broad definition of advocacy; these categories include "government relations," "public policy," "government and international affairs" and "peace and justice."

Since we recognize that other researchers might want to apply different definitions or make different choices, we sought to be as transparent as possible about our decision rules and the choices we made. We not only explained those rules in the methodology of the report but also published online a full list of the groups for which we had publicly available expenditure data showing which categories we selected. The use of publicly available financial data is important for consistency, transparency and verifiability. As we acknowledge in the report, some organizations' publicly reported budget categories seem to blur the line between advocacy and non-advocacy initiatives.

This was the case for the USCCB. As we specifically point out in the methodology, the only appropriate budget category available from the USCCB's financial statement was its spending on "policy activities," which, as the USCCB says, includes support for the Catholic News Service and other publishing initiatives. This category clearly blurs into non-advocacy initiatives. We agree with Sister Mary Ann that the USCCB's "Catholic News Service (CNS) is no more into lobbying/advocacy than is the Associated Press, NBC, ABC, CBS, PBS or any other news agency." Unfortunately, the publicly available financial statements do not break down the budgets of the various "policy activities," and thus we did not have the ability to pick and choose what to include and not include. As Sister Mary Ann states, "The USCCB may share in the blame for Pew's skew given its own lack of precision in the statement Pew studied..."

The USCCB does indeed operate a wide array of public policy programs, not only through its government relations department, but also through its programs on legal affairs, pro-life activities, religious freedom, marriage and family life, refugees, justice, peace and human development. And the USCCB promotes its broad issue concerns in a variety of publications and parish initiatives.

Rather than omit this important organization from the advocacy expenditures, which would have seemed like a glaring omission given the fact that the Catholic community accounts for nearly a quarter of the U.S. adult population, the Pew Forum research team used the best category available on the public financial statement of the USCCB. This seemed a reasonable decision in light of the fact that the $26.7 million figure represented less than a fifth of the USCCB's total budget of $143 million.

The USCCB plays an important role in public policy deliberations in the United States. We would welcome efforts by the Bishops Conference to delineate more precisely the financial support behind this work.

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