Combat Culture: Is your donation to veterans' groups going toward buying votes -- and is that the vote you want?
By Jim Gourley
Best Defense columnist
America spent Monday celebrating Veterans's Day. In recent years, journalists and military observers (Mr. Ricks among them) have remarked on the difference between how Americans remember the occasion in comparison to Europeans and our Canadian neighbors, and the relative merits of each approach. For every football halftime show that lauds our nation's heroes with girls in star-spangled hot pants, there's an op-ed saying we shouldn't do that. Whichever side of the fence people fall on, they have something in common with their opposites -- they both feel that we should be doing something to support our military.
"Doing something" is quite a dilemma for a country that is at once so acutely aware of, yet so physically removed from, its veterans. Over the last 10 years, Americans have gone with that convenient go-to mechanism of philanthropy. They give money.
Veterans' charities are most helpful in their effort to focus logistics. They perform good works by bringing qualified help and money to the people in need. But as recent American conflicts heightened, even the burgeoning size and population of non-profits wasn't sufficient to deal with the legions of veteran issues. From suicide to schooling, the issues of reintegrating America's veterans became a domestic equivalent to the war on terror's game of whack-a-mole. The emergence of groups like Student Veterans of America and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America showed non-profits a new approach by appealing directly to the government to retool its existent, outdated care systems. Lobbying among veterans' non-profits increased. Today, non-profits that solicit donations from people to help veterans are sending significant amounts of money to Capitol Hill and the White House.
The numbers vary, and the biggest spenders are not always household names. Paralyzed Veterans of America spent $250,000 on lobbying last year, compared to just $200,000 from the Wounded Warrior Project. Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America also outspent WWP with $230,000 poured into political efforts. AMVETS led all veteran organizations with $260,000, down from $590,000 in 2011. While these sums pale in comparison to the $50.4 million spent on lobbying by the defense aerospace industry in 2012, it's remarkable that these 501(c)(3) groups each spent enough money to crack into the top 15 on the list of corporate lobbyists. Even the USO spent $400,000 between 2011 and 2013 on lobbying. While most of these groups are open about their broad policy goals, it's a little more difficult to find which specific items of legislation they support or oppose, and to what extent they try to influence the process.
Some of the initiatives these lobbying dollars fund may raise eyebrows among donors. The AMVETS legislative page declares that the organization "has been a leader since 1944 in helping to preserve the freedoms secured by the Armed Forces of the United States of America. Today, our organization continues its proud tradition, providing not only support for veterans and active military service members in receiving their earned entitlements but also countless numbers of community services which enhance the quality of life for this Nation's citizens." Among its own 2014 resolutions, it adopted an official stance to continue support for Taiwan, advocacy for a bill protecting the U.S. flag from desecration, and to press the U.S. government for a postage stamp recognizing AMVETS as an official veterans' service organization.
The money trail runs in both directions. Few bills received as much veterans' group lobbying support as H.R. 2433, the VOW to Hire Heroes Act of 2011. It passed both houses unanimously (raising the question of how much lobbyist support was necessary), providing employers with tax credits for hiring veterans. No large corporation has latched onto this initiative as much as Wal-Mart. Not everyone thinks this is what the deal was supposed to accomplish. In addition to the wage debate, there's the matter of how donations contributed to the situation. It could be argued that people gave money to charitable organizations, which then used it to gain access to politicians so they could secure passage of a bill that will put veterans in minimum-wage jobs, so big companies can get tax breaks.
The consequences of this involvement go beyond questions about whether the money is hitting the donors' intended targets. Politics leads to sticky political issues. The VFW spent nearly $250,000 on lobbying annually prior to 2001. It recently stood up a parallel political action committee to support its legislative aims. That experiment ended abruptly in 2010 after the PAC's board angered members with controversial endorsements of congressional candidates. As reported by Stars and Stripes last week, former Executive Director of Student Veterans of America Mike Dakduk now works in the employ of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities -- which arguably works on behalf of SVA's primary antagonists.
Analyses by the Center for Responsive Politics suggest that lobbying expenditures by non-profit veteran groups are falling coincident with those of the defense industry. It is likely that, as the United States retracts from its present conflicts, the need to care for veterans will recede in line with that for new military equipment. Certainly, the noise about it has already abated. The box has been opened, though. More than ever, non-profits see government lobbying as a major instrument to achieve their objectives. This is a remarkable turn of philosophy, as the basic premise of non-profit organizations is to achieve goals outside of governmental means. In coming years, it will be interesting to see what percentage of donor contributions are directed toward lobbying, and what specific initiatives veterans' organizations choose to endorse.
Jim Gourley is an author, journalist, and former military intelligence officer.