National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  September 12, 2003

Analysis: Despite opposition, church groups win some on Capitol Hill


Washington’s church-based lobbies -- losers in legislative fights over tax cuts and Iraq earlier this year -- are poised to score some significant victories.

With just two months remaining before the end of the congressional session, the groups have already won some:

  • Bush administration efforts to convert Medicaid and other programs such as Head Start, job training, foster care and housing vouchers into state-based block grants (an idea many supporters of the programs fear would result in dramatic funding cuts) are dying or dead.
  • The Senate’s version of what remains of the president’s “Faith-Based Initiative” includes an additional $1.1 billion to antipoverty programs through the “Social Service Block Grant.” The administration opposes the funding.
  • Republican efforts to increase work requirements for welfare recipients attending college or participating in training programs are bogged down and unlikely to pass.

And even as Congress considers how to fund ongoing military operations in Iraq, it will be occupied discussing two issues: tax reductions for the working poor who did not benefit from the 2003 Bush tax cut, and a Medicare prescription drug benefit. Neither bodes well for congressional Republicans or the administration, divided and defensive on both issues.

What happened? How did a president who appeared so formidable just six months ago cede so much to those who oppose his agenda?


One answer: The 51-49 Republican Senate is so closely divided, and so cumbersome in its procedures, that consensus is needed in order to get anything done. A permanent reauthorization of the 1996 welfare reform legislation, for example, was supposed to happen in 2002, but got carried over to this year. Among the disputes: Conservatives want to increase the number of hours that welfare recipients must “work” while excluding some education and training from the definition of work. By contrast, church lobbyists and their Democratic allies in the Senate see additional education as just what the economically marginal need to succeed.

“If you’ve got someone who really is trying, who has a part-time job and is raising kids and is serious about school, that ought to count [toward the work requirement],” said John Carr, secretary of the U.S. bishops’ Office of Social Development and World Peace. “These are precisely the people who ought to be encouraged to get the skills necessary to get the jobs that you can raise a family on,” said Carr.

The result of the dispute is legislative stalemate, a victory of sorts for those concerned that any welfare legislation Congress would adopt would be punitive toward the poor. In fact, said Sharon Daly, Catholic Charities USA vice president of social policy, “I’m coming to the conclusion that maybe the best thing to do … is to recognize that Congress, like the country, is narrowly divided on these questions.” One increasingly plausible option, said Daly, would be for Congress to simply reauthorize the existing Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program -- with additional money for day care assistance -- until some consensus can be reached.

Another factor in the relative success of the religious community’s agenda: Despite the anti-government rhetoric spewed daily from Capitol Hill, many Republicans and Democrats value the programs they fund.

“The Section 8 housing voucher program goes back to the time of the Nixon administration,” explained Daly. “Head Start goes back to 1965 and the child welfare foster care program has been an entitlement since 1935.”

The idea of turning those programs over to the states to administer is less attractive than it once was, said Daly. “The states are bankrupt … so the idea of just turning more money over to them with no strings attached seems like a recipe for the states to cut even more and plug their budget holes with federal money. The bloom is off the rose in terms of the states being on the cutting edge of social policy.”

Other issues Congress will consider over the next two months include:

  • Foreign aid: Lobbyists from a slew of religious groups are calling on Congress to fully fund the newly created Millennium Challenge Accounts, designed to provide aid to the world’s most poverty-stricken nations, and for the president’s HIV/AIDS initiative for Africa. “There is no substitute for your clear, strong and persistent call for Congress to respond to these urgent, unfulfilled needs,” said Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in an Aug. 19 letter to President Bush.

“Failure to make these promised investments or take these actions will invite cynicism and increased hopelessness, damage U.S. credibility, and worse, abandon millions of sick and hungry people,” said Gregory.

  • Abortion: Congress is expected to send President Bush legislation that would outlaw so-called “partial-birth abortion.”
  • School vouchers: Proponents of “school choice” hope to establish a model voucher program in Washington as part of the District of Columbia appropriations bill.

Whatever victories the religious community and its allies can muster this year are tempered by the reality of budget deficits. The Congressional Budget Office estimated last month that federal government spending will exceed revenues by nearly $900 billion over the next two years. That leaves little room for the kind of social welfare initiatives promoted by faith-based groups and their allies on Capitol Hill.

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is

Related Web Sites
Americans Friends Service Committee

Bread for the World

Catholic Charities USA

Center of Concern

General Board of Church & Society (United Methodist Church)

Mennonite Central Committee

NETWORK: A Catholic Social Justice Lobby


U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Office of Social Development and World Peace


National Catholic Reporter, September 12, 2003

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