Organizations that support federal programs in arts, science, and community health that are in the crosshairs of President Donald Trump’s preliminary budget are fighting back, mobilizing supporters, targeting members of Congress, and launching integrated campaigns.
Federal programs they support or benefit from are at risk of being drastically curtailed or completely zeroed out to offset increases in defense spending. Many advocacy, lobbying, and nonprofit groups are warning Trump’s proposed cuts to federal agencies could have drastically negative effects on the health and pocketbooks of Americans.
Several federal departments, such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Departments of Energy and Health and Human Services, are also facing steep double-digit slashes to their operating budgets.
American Association for the Advancement of Science CEO Rush Holt has said in a statement that the budget would "cripple the science and technology enterprise" and reduce programs at the Department of Energy by 17.9%. In other words, a lot of scientists and engineers could be out of work.
Although the organization is not directly lobbying lawmakers, it is helping members get in touch with their representatives.
"We are not a lobbying organization, but what we are doing is informing our members of what is happening," says Joanne Carney, AAAS’ director of government relations. "We are providing resources on how they can reach their members of Congress and speak out using effective communications tools."
The group is also engaging its members on digital and social media, including Facebook Live, and both its CEO and research and development analyst have made themselves available to the media.
Federal departments understand they have to rely solely on supporters and high-profile influencers to make their case to Congress, says Liz Purchia Gannon, former comms head and national spokesperson for the EPA.
"They’ve been more than likely explaining the value of the programs in briefings to the White House and Office of Management and Budget, but clearly that hasn’t been effective," says Gannon, who recently launched her own firm, Riff City Strategies. "The administration has expressed their intention to go in a very different direction."
Cabinet leaders and officials are handcuffed from saying anything contrary to the administration by the Hatch Act, which forbids officials paid by the taxpayer from politically motivated behavior, such as lobbying.
The White House has also embedded within every cabinet agency a political appointee tasked with ensuring officials are following the president’s agenda and only pushing messages with administration approval, according to The Washington Post.
Golin Washington, DC, MD Neal Flieger has worked at a federal agency on the hot seat. He was deputy administrator of the Department of Agriculture’s food and consumer service agency in 1994 when Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich was championing the Contract with America calling for block granting of all federal meals programs.
"You’re not allowed to do any kind of lobbying with federal money," Flieger explains. "That also goes for independent agencies that get all of their funding federally."
The National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, sister agencies that provide federal grants in areas like music, filmmaking and linguistics, are prohibited from engaging in advocacy, even as they face the prospect of being wiped out.
Private donations to the agencies also cannot be earmarked for lobbying because that money is subject to the same rules as if it was public funding.
"Our office has a lot of ethics training on this and so we’re compliant, but we can educate and speak up publicly for the work we do and arts in general," says Victoria Hutter, assistant director for public affairs at the NEA. "We’re not making a case for our survival, but for the value NEA provides to the people it has engaged."
She adds that much of its media relations activity is focused on numbers.
"The media wants data and stories, data and stories," says Hutter. "They need data to illustrate the stories, and stories to bring life to the data. So we’re always keeping in mind generating materials for the data."
To that end, both the NEA and NEH are assembling and supplying infographics and factsheets for media requests, which have skyrocketed since January 17, when The Hill broke a story about possible budget cuts to the two groups.
Given the increased interest, the NEH has launched a weekly newsletter called Grantee Spotlight for its email list, which has thousands of recipients. The newsletter features stories of how grants have helped recipients, according to Theola DeBose, the group’s director of comms. The organization is also cross-promoting the content on its social media platforms, including Medium and Snapchat.
"We’re also stitching together a video showing grantees immersed in humanities work to show the public what the humanities look like," DeBose says.
Constant drumbeat from nonprofits
The Food Research and Action Center, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and Americans for the Arts are three of the nonprofits on the front lines.
Non-federal agencies are exempt from restraints holding back government organizations from making their case, even if they do get a portion of funding from the government. Without the handcuffs, they’ve gone on the offensive.
Americans for the Arts has designated itself the leader of the fight to #SaveTheNEA. The group, whose members can receive grant money from the NEA, has run full-page ads in The Hill, Roll Call, and Politico speaking to legislators about the value of the NEA.
It also held an event for National Arts Advocacy Day this week, co-sponsored by 89 national arts service organizations, which brought about 700 people to Capitol Hill to advocate to members of Congress and the White House, says Inga Vitols, AFA’s press and media relations manager.
She says the AFA is reaching out to 350,000 citizen activists asking them to communicate with their representatives in the House and Senate and sign its petition to Trump. Vitols says about 110,000 emails have been sent to Congress about arts funding through its Voter Voice tool.
She says "maintaining a robust research database of facts related to economy, jobs, and other practical reasons for support of the NEA" is also important. The group is also about to release a study from its Arts and Economic Prosperity research.
AFA’s supporters include the charitable initiative Artists for the Arts, which has put together a gospel cover of The Beatles song, "With a Little Help from My Friends" performed by Broadway stars. The single’s net profits will go towards AFA’s efforts to save the NEA, says Vitols.
Food Research and Action Center, which lobbies on behalf of federal food and nutrition programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, "is in the fight of its life," says comms director Colleen Barton Sutton.
"We need to make sure people understand what is at stake," she says. "Our nation’s safety net is under attack—plain and simple—and we need to defend it."
The group is working with thousands of anti-hunger advocates and presenting signatures from more than 3,000 national organizations urging the president and Congress to safeguard those programs, Sutton says. It is also holding Twitter chats with national partners and conducting extensive national outreach.
In addition to harnessing influencers, Gannon says NGOs have to do everything they can to keep the pressure on Congress. She notes that a fleshed-out iteration of the budget is expected in May, but Congress has to ultimately pass it.
"They can’t let things get normalized," says Gannon. "A really important way to prevent that is by targeting media in key Congress-members’ districts. They closely read the press coverage from the district they represent. People in those communities have a strong ability to influence how their members feel about a position."