Bureaucracy plus plastic chairs?

Posted: Jan 27, 2005 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Here's a way for compassionate conservatives and libertarians to work together to help the poor and reduce governmental power at the same time: Ask your senators and representatives to support vouchers for programs dealing with social needs.
Some history: Four years ago, on Jan. 29, 2001, 30 leaders from faith-based organizations met here with President George W. Bush in the White House to celebrate establishment of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. The meeting was like one at the First Baptist Church in Austin a month before, but there the president-elect and participants sat on plastic chairs. On Jan. 29, leather chairs and dark paneling suggested that people now in power were serious about reducing their power.

 It didn't turn out that way. Four years later, we often have the worst of both worlds: bureaucracy and, at the end of the process, only plastic seats. A three-faction axis -- anti-religious bigots, officials who prize bureaucracy over street-level smarts and longtime nonprofit recipients of federal funds -- brought almost to a halt the movement toward giving little guys of different religions and ideologies the chance to break secular liberalism's stranglehold on social services.

 That was not surprising. Although James Monroe's administration enjoyed an era of good feeling almost two centuries ago, the most we can expect now is a day of good feeling, and that's how long the Jan. 29 coalition lasted. As the legislative part of the initiative faltered, disappointment grew.

 The original Bush proposal to establish a $500-per-person charity tax credit didn't get even to first base. Social service voucher plans languished on second. Legislation to provide religious charities with some protection died at third. The administration ended up promulgating good executive orders that could temporarily remove some discrimination against religious groups, but executive orders don't have the staying power of laws.

 Overall, the line score of the first four innings of the faith-based initiative reads: No runs, a few bunt singles, lots of errors and many men left on base. Now, though, year five has begun and, at the top of the fifth inning, the faith-based initiative shows signs of a rally, as it uses social service vouchers.

 For example, this year, $100 million will go to Access to Recovery, a program that allows addicts to seek treatment from religious groups as well as secular ones. Some dollars will be wasted, but over the decades the feds have thrown away billions of dollars on ineffective anti-addiction programs. Now, finally, organizations that rely on religious conversion to break addiction can be on a level playing field with all others, without having Washington boss them around.

 Christian conservatives especially should be emphasizing vouchers, since activist courts are likely to shut down grant-based programs that give religion a chance. (Two weeks ago, U.S. District Judge John Shabaz ruled that federal funding of a prison mentoring program in Arizona was unconstitutionally advancing religion.) Libertarians should back vouchers because a continuation of the grant-making process will let Washington continue to boss around community groups.

 Jim Towey, who took over the Bush faith-based office after its troubled first year, received on Jan. 13 a well-deserved promotion: He is now officially assistant to the president, with good Oval Office access. When we talked last month, he said that the voucherized drug treatment program is "exciting stuff" and that "we should be pressuring to have vouchers in other areas -- but alas, I never, ever hear a peep from the Hill on this."

 We'll be missing a great opportunity to help the poor and reduce federal power if we don't hear lots of peeps from Capitol Hill -- and the shouts from people around the country that lead to Washington peeping.