GOP: Money Is Fungible For Planned Parenthood, But Not Faith-Based Organizations

Our guest blogger is Jessica Arons, Director of the Women’s Health and Rights Program at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) -- Sponsor of the Planned Parenthood amendment.

Last week, House Republicans held up the budget and threatened a government shutdown over federal funding for Planned Parenthood. Thankfully a deal was reached that restored funding for this critical safety net provider, but the bargain included an agreement that the Senate hold an independent vote — scheduled for this afternoon — on whether to defund the organization.

Conservatives claim that they object to funding Planned Parenthood because it provides abortion services, even though they know that Planned Parenthood is barred from spending any federal money on abortion by a provision known as the Hyde Amendment, as well as numerous other laws. The truth is that they want to cut off funding for family planning services because they oppose contraception as much as they do abortion.

Nevertheless, they assert that funding should be cut because taxpayers are “subsidizing” abortion. Their argument is that money is “fungible,” meaning that every dollar the government gives Planned Parenthood for family planning services, STI and HIV prevention and treatment, and cancer screening “frees up” money for it to spend on abortion care. According to them, mechanisms to segregate public from private funds are mere “accounting gimmicks” and “funding schemes.”

This is not the first time they’ve tried to play the fungibility card. Some may recall that former Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI) made the exact same argument when he tried to prevent private insurance companies receiving premium subsidies from offering coverage of abortion in their health plans during the health reform debate. And more recently, Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) has tried to expand the Hyde Amendment policy well beyond its current scope, including by reaching into the tax code to restrict abortion access for the first time ever.

However, when it comes to their pet projects, like granting government money to faith-based organizations, they suddenly have every confidence in a recipient’s ability to keep pots of money separate and only use government money for approved uses. For instance, there was no parallel attempt (nor should there have been) during health reform to prevent Catholic-affiliated hospitals and health plans from receiving money under the Affordable Care Act on the theory that it would subsidize their religious activities and violate the Establishment Clause. Ironically, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was one of the leading proponents of the fungibility argument in the abortion context.

And just last week, the conservative majority of the Supreme Court found that while a direct grant to religious schools would give taxpayers the right to sue for a violation of the Establishment Clause, an Arizona law that gave citizens dollar-for-dollar tax credits for donating to those same schools did not violate taxpayer rights. According to the Court, dissenters’ rights are violated when their money is “extracted and spent” by the government. But the charitable contributions yielding the tax credits at issue passed “directly from taxpayers to private organizations” and resulted from the “decisions of private taxpayers regarding their own funds.” Thus, the dissenters’ injury could not be traced to the government.

As I pointed out last year during the debate over the Stupak Amendment:

Our society recognizes the distinction between direct and indirect funding all the time. Indeed, if we did not, our government probably could not function. Religious organizations receive tax money to provide direct social services but are strictly prohibited from using that money for sectarian purposes. Nonprofit organizations obtain government grants that can be used for charitable activities but not for electioneering….No transaction in our modern society is completely free of government involvement.

Ultimately, the debate over direct and indirect funding is a distraction. People on both sides of the ideological divide recognize accounting firewalls when they approve of underlying policies and object when they do not.

Don’t believe for a second that this fight is about government funding of abortion, because it’s not. In reality, social conservatives are attacking Planned Parenthood funding because they oppose contraception but don’t want to admit it. So they use fungibility arguments to turn it into an abortion debate. But as soon as you look at their position on fungibility in other contexts, you can see that it’s all smoke and mirrors.