Many members of Congress pretend to be on a pedestal. They claim greater certainty about their votes than they possess, and greater knowledge of what's coming down the road than anyone could have.
That's why it was refreshing for Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., to acknowledge honestly his qualms about H.R. 7, the House bill concerning President Bush's faith-based initiative that is now heading toward the Senate. On July 19, the morning of the vote, he told me: "I'm not coming to this with real enthusiasm. I'm scared to death of the phenomenon I've seen happen here over and over again."
Tancredo continued, "A bill starts out with a certain merit, and you hope to God, literally, that you're doing the right thing. ... It's amended, it comes back from the Senate very ugly, you know you had some part in passing it, and you now wish to God you hadn't."
Another Republican conservative, Rep. Mark Souder of Indiana, also had some last-minute decision-making to do. Souder has long preferred tax credit approaches to direct grants for poverty-fighting. He considered fighting for a tax credit proposal once more when two leading Democratic opponents of H.R. 7 offered to push it with him. Representatives "Bobby Scott and Chet Edwards were willing to drop (propose) the $500 tax bill with me," Souder said: "On the (House) floor it sounds like we don't like each other, but we get along fine."
That idea died, though, when White House lobbyists insisted to him that 'the president really needs this." Souder concluded, "I had to let the president have his shot." Other Republican members of Congress, such as Steve Largent of Oklahoma, Todd Tiahrt of Kansas, and Joseph Pitts of Pennsylvania said they felt the same way: They voted not so much for the bill as for President Bush. He had told them, Tiahrt said , that H.R. 7 "is so important to me that I want you to overlook some of the details and get it done."
Tancredo, though, felt he could not overlook the details. H.R. 7 already protected religious liberty by stating that if a recipient of services from a faith-based group objected to the program on religious grounds, the government would make sure that an alternative was available. But one amendment took protection to an extreme: If a person comes to a faith-based group but decides at any point that he doesn't like the religious flavor,
that group has to provide a secular alternative.
Heather Humphries of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise is one of many experts on faith-based groups who consider the amendment "a complete loser" that would make good programs ineffective. Think of it this way: What if college students, once they enrolled in a course, could refuse to come to class, write papers or take exams, and still get an "A"? Wouldn't teaching under those circumstances be hindered?
The Bush administration claimed that the amendment wasn't too bad. A Team Bush executive said the change would "pacify people who have concerns," and other changes that create uncertainty would give Democrats cover to vote for the bill: "Ambiguity is to our advantage." But ambiguity is to the disadvantage of front line poverty-fighters. They need clear rules establishing what they can and cannot do. As Family Research Council President Ken Connor put it, "Faith-based groups should not have to founder on the shoals of legalese."
Tancredo didn't buy Team Bush's praise of ambiguity, but he finally decided to vote for H.R. 7 because of another amendment: a "beneficiary choice" provision inserted late in the process. That provision gives the secretaries of housing and urban development, health and human services or other departments the authority to "direct the disbursement of some or all of the funds" through vouchers or other means that enhance religious liberty.
"If you take a voucher, you don't have to change your program," Tancredo said. Souder also praised beneficiary choice as "a breakthrough," but said "it's not like it will pass the Senate."
And that's why Tancredo relayed his concern about how once a bill "gets rolling, forget it, man, it takes on a life of its own. Soon you're running out the door of the Capitol asking, 'What have I done?'"