Republicans want nothing more than to strip vulnerable Americans of their hard-won rights—but they can’t get that done at the federal level. Instead, they rely on the states to advance their unpopular extremist agenda.
In Iowa, Arkansas, and Missouri, right-wing state legislators have voted to loosen child labor laws. In Ohio, they’ve introduced a bill requiring teachers to out LGBTQ+ students to their families. And in Kansas, they’re making it harder for people to vote and to receive government assistance.
This is not a new technique; Republicans have long counted on statehouses to do their dirtiest work for them. But this latest wave of reactionary legislation is even more coordinated than it seems. Each of those bills can be traced back to a single source: a right-wing think tank called the Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA), and its similarly opaquely named lobbying arm, the Opportunity Solutions Project (OSP).
Most people have never heard of the FGA, and that works to its advantage. As a certified 501(c)(3) organization, it is classified as a charity—and thus is tax-exempt. The OSP, meanwhile, is a 501(c)(4), or a “social welfare” group. These names and designations may seem innocuous, but the groups’ agenda is anything but.
Founded in 2011, the FGA has spent the last decade influencing Republican state legislatures to gut the social safety net, shrink the voting population, and turn back the clock on fundamental rights that Americans might have assumed they could take for granted.
For instance, in states such as Kansas, Mississippi, West Virginia, and Kentucky, the organization helped institute onerous work requirements for SNAP recipients. In Ohio, the OSP assisted Republican lawmakers in reducing the time voters have to mail in their ballots and vote early. And most recently, Republicans under the influence of FGA in Arkansas and Iowa have rewritten laws to allow children to work long hours and in dangerous jobs—a move that will make it easier for employers to exploit and endanger migrant children. (Readers of this column will already be familiar with those consequences.)
The FGA makes no effort to hide its agenda—though just as with the name of the organization itself, it masks its draconian policy with euphemisms. On its website, rolling back child labor laws becomes “expanding the workforce,” while cutting the lifeline of unemployment benefits is addressing the “worker shortage.” Interestingly, it has yet to come up with an Orwellian rephrasing for “stopping Medicaid expansion”; might I suggest “freedom from medical tyranny”?
As of 2021, the FGA has celebrated 1,847 “victories” and counting at the state and federal level. With an annual budget of $12.5 million, it has quickly become a central part of the right-wing legislative landscape.
This kind of shadowy arrangement isn’t new. The FGA has close ties to other dark-money groups, like the American Legislative Exchange Council, which has ghostwritten thousands of controversial bills for the last four decades and provided Republican legislators with a secret, corporate-funded social network.
It is also linked to DonorsTrust, a think tank that has funded Republicans’ fight against unions, climate, public schools, and more. DonorsTrust contributed almost $11 million to the FGA between 2014 and 2021.
Voters deserve to know that groups like these are behind the legislation that shapes their lives. Advocates have pushed for laws that would require better transparency from dark-money groups. During the last Congress, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) introduced the DISCLOSE Act, which would require such groups to name any individual who donates more than $10,000 in one election cycle. Of course, not a single Republican voted for it. But progressives can take a page from the FGA playbook and make moves on this issue at the state level—like in Arizona, where voters from both parties approved a measure to expose those providing dark money.
Groups like the FGA derive much of their success from secrecy, so one step anyone can take to curb their influence is to expose them publicly. More Republicans should be confronted, as those in the Kansas Senate have been, with simple questions about who is behind the bills they sponsor and how they get their money. Meanwhile, the Brennan Center—and other groups that care about democracy and transparency—continue to champion the public financing of campaigns as a way to “counter the outsize influence of megadonors.”
Conservatives have never hesitated to claim that organizations like Planned Parenthood, individuals like George Soros, or amorphous concepts like the “liberal media” or “woke mob” control American politics. But the FGA is actually a powerful group shrouded in secrecy that is reshaping laws across the country. Small-d democrats would do well to expose its dark influence to the light of day.