Congressional moves to block federal funds to ACORN are unlikely to have a big financial impact on the controversial community organizing group because it doesn't get much funding from the federal government. But the gesture's ripple effect – in influencing states and charities to also cut off funds, for instance – could eventually hit the group badly.
US House lawmakers on Thursday trumped a Senate move to keep federal housing dollars from the Association of Community Organizations for Reform by voting to block all federal funds to the group. Now Republican Senators are also preparing a similar bill.
The moves follow the release of a series of video tapes that show ACORN employees giving advice to two undercover conservative activists about how to hide money from their prostitution ring.
According to a Congressional report, the group has received $53 million in federal funds since 1994. But the nonpartisan Politifact.com reported in May that most of that money went to the ACORN Housing Corporation, one of the group's many affiliates.
The moves by the House and Senate would have minimal impact financially on the group, says ACORN CEO Bertha Lewis.
"Fortunately, ACORN derives most of its income from its members and other supporters, so the decision will have little impact on overall operations. The only real victims of today's vote are the families who have benefited from ACORN's important work," she said in a statement.
ACORN may be able to afford losing the federal dollars, but the backlash is now filtering down to states where the group receives funding.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has called for an investigation into ACORN's activities in California. One of the hidden-camera videotapes shows an ACORN employee in San Bernardino, Calif., explaining to disguised activists James O'Keefe and Hannah Giles how to hide a prostitution ring from tax authorities.
In Georgia, Gov. Sonny Perdue told state offices on Thursday not to give any contracts to ACORN in light of the recent scandal. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the state has a $104,000 contract with the group through its Dept. of Human Services. Similar efforts are underway in Louisiana, Minnesota, New York, and Florida.
Moreover, if ACORN's image doesn't recover, foundations and individuals that donate to the group could also decide to cut their funding.
A vast and complex network
ACORN has 1,200 chapters in 75 cities across the country. While much of its work focuses on voter registration and social justice issues, some affiliates help poor families with foreclosure prevention and tax preparation.
The group's dual local and national focus is considered unique in the world of community organizing, says Robert Fisher, professor of community organization at the University of Connecticut in Hartford and editor of a book on ACORN.
But its work with voter registration drew conservatives' ire in 2008 when some ACORN workers were found to have filed bogus registration forms. Several of those employees have been convicted.
By law, ACORN is not allowed to use federal dollars to conduct voter registration. But "the problem is that ACORN transfers vast sums of money around in its network all the time. We don't know whether the money would be spent on voter registration or other activities," ACORN critic Matthew Vadum, a senior analyst and editor with Capital Research Center, told Politifact.
On its website, ACORN says that it does not directly receive federal grants, but has had contracts with other nonprofits that received federal grant support.
The political angle
Many conservative groups and Republican lawmakers have also charged the group of using federal dollars to advance a Democratic agenda.
"ACORN gave significant support to Democrats, and Americans must remain vigilant to avoid backtracking or efforts to water down prohibitions denying federal funds to this corrupt organization," said Rep. Darrell Issa (R) of California, who introduced the "Defund ACORN Act" and has long been a fierce critic of ACORN, in a statement.
Professor Fisher says the scorn directed at ACORN "comes with the turf" because the group has become a significant player in US politics.
But, he adds, in the current debate about ACORN, "it seems that only one side is being heard."