Bush's faith-based agenda alive and well in federal agencies

The Senate is sitting on President Bush's faith-based legislation, John DiIulio has resigned his high-profile position as director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, and news organizations have publicly declared Bush's faith-based initiative to be all but dead. But not so fast. Opening up government coffers to religious and community groups probably won't hinge on whether or not the President's legislative agenda succeeds. Instead, religious groups' access to government grants and funds will depend more upon the efforts of a handful of Bush appointees who have been quietly squirreled away in barely noticed offices at five federal departments--Education; Health and Human Services; Housing and Urban Development; Justice; and Labor. They are people such as Elizabeth Seale-Scott, who is director of the Faith-Based and Community Initiatives Center at the Health and Human Services Department. Her office and four others just like it were created earlier this year by presidential executive order. Their mission is to identify the barriers within each department to faith-based and community groups' winning government contracts. In addition, Seale-Scott and Tevi Troy, until recently Seale's counterpart at Labor, were charged with determining how well their two departments are complying with existing laws that encourage the awarding of social service contracts to religious groups. Information from this handful of centers formed the backbone of the President's August 16 report on barriers to faith-based groups' using government money. Stephen V. Monsma of Pepperdine University notes that the media have all but ignored these centers, and in so doing have missed an important fact. "The [faith-based] initiative has been operating on two tracks. The legislative initiative has received the most attention. These five centers have been on the other track." Veteran legislative watchers in Austin, Texas, note that as governor, Bush had a history of effectively using this two-track, legislative-administrative approach to get his way. And in implementing his faith-based initiatives, Bush as President already had a head start: He could use significant legislation already on the books to advance his cause.

Known as "charitable choice," the first provisions encouraging faith-based groups to bid for government social service contracts were enacted in 1996 as a part of welfare reform. Since that time, charitable choice has been expanded three times. In 1997, the provisions were extended to welfare-to-work programs; in 1998, language was written into the reauthorization of Community Services Block Grant legislation; and in 2000, the charitable choice option was added for federal substance abuse prevention and treatment programs. Bush's proposal before Congress calls for greatly expanding existing charitable choice legislation, but a source close to the administration said that by using current law, the White House felt it could get up to 80 percent of its faith-based agenda moving, even if the new legislation died in Congress. If you haven't heard much about these faith-based centers, don't be too surprised. The general telephone information operators at both the Education and Labor Departments weren't aware of them either. At the moment, these centers are but dots in their agencies' universes. Generally speaking, they are running on skeleton budgets. Seale-Scott's office, for example, has just three people. And another source familiar with the HHS center concedes that it has "practically no budget." Troy said that Labor's center had a staff of just four, and he wouldn't reveal budget numbers. But the five dwarf stars have the potential to become supernovas. Ross K. Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University, says that the centers more than make up for any shortage of funds by carrying the backing of the White House. "They may be a two-office suite now, but the potential for growth is huge" when the bureaucracy knows the President is fully supportive. Indeed, Seale-Scott is moving ahead under the assumption that her office will have a major role to play: "The White House put a face on the faith-based issue. The five centers, however, are going to be the muscle and sinew to this initiative." But how much muscle and sinew will the centers have, and what types of action will they attempt? These are the questions that make bureaucrats within these departments nervous. People who have the President's approval make their colleagues "edgy," according to Baker. But Seale-Scott insists there is no reason for bureaucrats to worry. "People here don't see us as the Gestapo or police." But she's blunt about the work to be done. Of the more than 300 programs in HHS, Seale-Scott's initial report to the President focused on only 11. She found that HHS has chosen to do very little with charitable choice legislation so far. "We will continue to look at HHS programs," she said. "There are changes we can make across the board." Monsma is confident these centers will be effective. "There's a great deal these centers can do. More can be accomplished here than through the legislation. A great deal can be done on the administrative level, as long as these agencies are persistent and insistent." He goes on to say, however, that the President must continue to support the faith-based centers. And Monsma believes that Bush will. "Some of the departments may feel this is Bush's `issue of the week.' But I think this is something Bush really believes in, and it will not go away."

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
X CLOSE Don't show again

Like us on Facebook