Faith-Based Foray

Bush Presses Forward On Religion Funding Without Congressional Approval

Robert Polito is a man with a mission.

Polito, director of the faith-based office at Bush's Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), recently told the Associated Press that he and other Bush administration officials are moving full steam ahead on the president's controversial "faith-based" initiative.

"It would be great to have legislation, but there's a ton of stuff I can do without it," Polito said.

Since President George W. Bush unveiled his "faith-based" initiative, support for the project in Congress has been tepid, at best. While the scheme has its champions, many Capitol Hill lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have had lingering doubts about the plan's constitutionality, feasibility, cost and practicality. As a result, legislation to encapsulate the Bush plan into law has languished in Congress for months.

Not willing to let a skeptical Congress delay its plan for government-funded religion, the Bush administration is moving ahead with the faith-based initiative anyway.

James Towey, head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, told The Washington Post, "We really want the legislation badly. But this office isn't just about federal legislation. This office is going to move forward with the president's initiative."

Apparently, a great number of options are available to the Executive Branch in this area. HHS, for example, is already using its budget to finance religious groups' social service programs. Despite the yearlong debate over the most divisive elements of the president's plan, such as government-funded employment discrimination and separating secular and religious elements of publicly financed social services, HHS' faith-based efforts sidestep these concerns altogether. In fact, the agency is following the 1996 changes to welfare reform law by allowing ministries to accept federal funds while considering religion when hiring and firing employees, as well as funding ministries that refuse to separate the religious and secular features of their work.

HHS' Polito freely admits the administration's goal of funding religious work with tax dollars.

"We wouldn't be called the faith-based office if we weren't trying to see how we can partner with the faith community," Polito told the AP. "We don't have to take the temperature of the religiosity of the program."

Other cabinet agencies with faith-based outreach programs are following HHS' lead. In fact, the Departments of Housing and Urban Development, Justice and Education are also moving ahead with plans to issue grants to religious groups.

HHS officials, however, have been bolder and more aggressive in their efforts. Through use of the Compassion Capital Fund, the agency is not only subsidizing the work of religious charities, it is also allowing those recipients of public funds to then allocate some of the tax dollars to other ministries (See "Faith-Based Flim-Flam," page xx.).

While the Bush administration might be willing to act on faith-based funding without legislation in Congress, some of Capitol Hill's most ardent supporters of the president's initiative haven't given up hope on getting the plan passed and on the president's desk before the 2002 elections.

The week of Sept. 9, Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.) began behind-the-scenes negotiations to get faith-based legislation moving again.

Santorum and Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) are co-sponsoring the Charity, Aid, Recovery and Empowerment (CARE) Act, which emphasizes tax incentives for greater donations to charities. The Senate Finance Committee approved legislation on June 18, but the bill has received little attention since.

The House of Representatives passed the president's plan, including controversial "charitable choice" provisions, last year. If the Senate passes the CARE Act, House Republicans have said they will insist that House and Senate members meet in a conference committee to create a compromise version of the two bills before congressional passage.

Dan Gerstein, a Lieberman spokesperson, told The Washington Times that the bill will be a "dead duck" this year unless the House agrees to support the CARE Act without charitable choice.

With only a few weeks before Congress departs for the year, many are doubtful the Senate can complete work on the legislation. If a deal cannot be reached, supporters of expanding faith-based funding will have to wait until the 108th Congress convenes in 2003 and start the process all over again.