How accurate were recent figures cited by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in their recent report on advocacy/lobbying by religious entities in Washington? The report, "Lobbying for the Faithful," garnered national attention, and the figure Pew calculated for U.S.C.C.B. advocacy, what the bishops do in Washington cannot be legally or practically described as lobbying, raised some eyebrows. At a reported $26.6 million in 2009, the bishops, according to Pew, were only beaten out in Washington spending by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which Pew reports spent $88 million on lobbying in 2008. Pew reported that Catholic Relief Services, at $4.7 million, was the 19th biggest religious spender in Washington.
Now the accuracy of those dollar figures is being challenged by both the U.S.C.C.B and Catholic Relief Services. In a post at the U.S.C.C.B. media blog, U.S.C.C.B. spokesperson Sister Mary Ann Walsh writes: "Pew acknowledges that its figures for religious advocacy groups, such as USCCB, are imprecise. It got its figures from a USCCB consolidated financial statement that listed all kinds of USCCB activities as 'policy activities.' The USCCB may share in the blame for Pew’s skew given its own lack of precision in the statement Pew studied; but 'policy' here cannot be equated with 'public policy.'"
"Imprecise" is certainly a fair assessment of the Pew methodology. According to Walsh, "In estimating advocacy expenses, Pew included costs for the Communications Department, including publishing, media relations, digital media, and Catholic News Service."
While some of the Communications Department and media relations work may arguably be associated with policy advocacy, the other departments are fairly straightforward news and communications organs of the bishops' conference. Not anything anyone would practically associate with Washington lobbying.
Walsh writes: "The USCCB does engage in government relations – not in electioneering – and has three full-time staff assigned to the task. None of them hands out money and the cost of their efforts reaches no where near $26 million. The entire cost of salary and benefits for the entire USCCB staff, in Washington, Miami, New York and Rome, is $29 million, somewhat more than the $26 million Pew claims USCCB pours into lobbying/advocacy. If Pew were right there’d be no funds for USCCB’s central efforts in evangelization, liturgy, helping the poor, educating Catholics, doctrine and canon law."
Likewise CRS officials had a "we wish" moment when they saw the $4.7 million figure used by Pew. Communcations Director John Rivera fired off a complaint to Pew Religion & Public Life Director Luis Lugo, calling that figure "grossly inaccurate and misleading."
"The study cites CRS’ 2009 Annual Report as its source, arbitrarily using the category of Public Awareness to encompass all of CRS’ advocacy activities. However, Public Awareness includes only CRS’ expenditures for our Marketing and Communications department, which does not include any of our Advocacy staff or directly fund any of our core Advocacy activities. To the extent that our Advocacy Unit might request a press release, post something on our website, or order a brochure, these departments would play a role. But it would be a very small percentage of their overall work."
Rivera says CRS's true "advocacy" costs were somewhere in the vicinity of $800k, and he adds that had a Pew researcher contacted CRS before publishing the report, this confusion might have been avoided.
In a response, a Pew official notes that a researcher did try to contact CRS via an email to 'webmaster' and a phone call in April. Now folks who work at places like CRS, which must receive thousands of peices of digital mail each day may judge if that effort were sufficient given the importance of the need for clarity and accuracy for reports like this. But the bottom line is that Pew is standing by its figures, using a broad understanding of advocacy, not limited by IRS definition of same and generously including all efforts by religious organizations "to inform their constituencies and the public about issues of concern and to help shape public policy on those issues." That's an understanding which may make sense within Pews hallowed halls, but out in the real world, I suspect it has led mostly to head scratching.
Rivera and Walsh are seeking corrections from Pew and Pew seems satisified that it has done the best it could with the data at hand and the definitions it was using. Stay tuned.