Slings and Arrows

I've just finished reading Tempting Faith, and have all manner of
thoughts in reaction to it. And I'd like to share some of the best parts of it
with you, as well. (Though as a future book-peddling author myself, I would be
remiss if I didn't encourage you to go out and buy your own copy.) But first
I'd like to address some of the criticism of David Kuo coming
from his former boss at the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community
Initiatives, Jim Towey.

(Apologies for
the late start. I raced through Tempting Faith this afternoon, wrote up
2,000 words of my thoughts on it,  and then promptly had them erased by
the system when I tried to post in the early evening. Let's try again, shall we?) 

 

I've just finished reading Tempting Faith, and have all manner of
thoughts in reaction to it. And I'd like to share some of the best parts of it
with you, as well. (Though as a future book-peddling author myself, I would be
remiss if I didn't encourage you to go out and buy your own copy.) But first
I'd like to address some of the criticism of David Kuo coming
from his former boss at the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community
Initiatives, Jim Towey.

 

My instinct is to start off with the qualifier that while I disagree with
how Towey has reacted to Kuo's book, I believe he is a man of good faith. He
is, and he sent me quite a nice note after I first started writing about
Democrats and religion. But at some point, being a person of good faith
shouldn't get you off the hook, it should require something of you. I was
surprised by the partisan and defensive tone that Towey adopted once he was in the
White House and it's disappointing to see him continuing to stay on-message
now. Let's take a look at his criticisms:

 

Those Weren't Campaign Events

In response to charges that faith-based gatherings doubled as campaign
events, Towey told the Los Angeles Times that he traveled to Blue
states as well. That's literally true-Towey's work took him all over the
country. But the events in question-at which White House officials urged crowds
to rally behind the Republican candidates of the day because of their support
(real or wished-for) of the faith-based initiative-were held in 20 battleground
states and congressional districts in 2003 and 2004.

 

If Towey's excuse sounds familiar, that's because it is the exact same one
put out by the White House press office on the one occasion when a reporter
inquired into the coincidental scheduling and location of these events: "The
bottom line is that Jim travels all over the country to talk about the
president's faith-based initiative." True, but-again-irrelevant to the question
at hand.

 

Kuo writes, "No one in the office but Jim and I knew…that we both kept handy
a copy of the political map with every state shaded to reveal its importance.
Mine was taped to the pull-out shelf on my desk. His was in a desk drawer. We
never did anything without looking at them."

 

Just Short a Few Dimes

Sunday night on "60 Minutes," Towey insisted to Lesley Stahl that Bush has "delivered on
every single thing he promised" for the faith-based initiative. "But not the
money," replied Stahl. "Not every cent of it," admitted Towey. That's one way
of putting it.

 

The president's initial promise was an $8 billion faith-based initiative. In
the first year, the White House delivered $30 million, with small increases in
subsequent years. "Not every billion" would have been a more accurate way of
putting it.

 

It turns out that every time Bush announced a new "compassion"
initiative-whether to help children of prisons or to combat teen violence-the
money came out of existing funds for his Compassion Capital Fund, and it was
usually somewhere along the lines of $10 million per year. Not chump change,
but not exactly $8 billion. Try to set Bush straight about the shell game his
political aides were playing, though, and-surprise-he didn't want to hear it.

 

At one point, Kuo went into the Oval Office to brief Bush on a meeting he
was about to have with some religious leaders. "Forget about all that," Bush
told him. "Money. All these guys care about is money. They want money. How much
money have we given them?" Kuo told the truth: "Sir, we've given them virtually
nothing because we have had virtually nothing new to give." Bush freaked. Rove,
trying to smooth things over, prompted Kuo about funds faith-based groups are
technically eligible for. Must be a lot of those, right? Yes, there was about
$8 billion in existing programs that faith-based groups could apply for, but
they'd already been eligible for-and many of them receiving-those funds.

 

"Eight billion in new dollars?" asked Bush. "No sir. Eight billion in
existing dollars," replied Kuo. No matter. "Eight billion. That's what we'll
tell them. Eight billion in new funds for faith-based groups. Okay, let's go."
And so off Bush went, to placate the religious leaders, who must have been
awfully confused about why none of them were getting any grants if there was so
much money floating around.

 

Even worse? Those roundtables and conferences the faith-based office kept
holding around the country for Republican candidates cost about $100,000 a pop.
Compare that to the handful of mini-grants of $50,000 or less dispersed through
the Compassion Capital Fund and you get a pretty good idea of where the White
House's priorities lay.

 

Congress Was the Real Problem

Towey also told Stahl that Kuo was wrong to think that Bush could just walk
on up and ask Congress to approve his faith-based initiative. The strong
implication is that the president tried his best, but Congress just wouldn't
come through for him. That is completely and utterly false.

 

The most significant piece of the $8 billion faith-based initiative as
originally trumpeted by Bush was the provision to provide tax credits for
charitable giving. The best estimates of the proposal projected that by
encouraging more Americans to give money to charity, it would stimulate
somewhere around $16 billion in giving each year.

 

When it came time to send the budget up to Capitol Hill, however, "those
charity tax credits weren't listed by the White House as must-haves," writes
Kuo, so they were left out. Senator Charles Grassley put them back into the
Senate version, because "he assumed that the White House had omitted the
charity provisions by oversight." Alas, no. During negotiations over the final
budget bill, Bush's chief congressional liaison told Grassley "to get rid of
the charity tax credits….The White House didn't want them anymore."

 

To make things even worse, the tax credits were bumped aside in order to
make room for elimination of the estate tax. One popular way of getting around
the estate tax for many wealthy individuals has been to donate money to
charities and write off the gift. Eliminating the estate tax not only prevented
$16 billion of new giving from being stimulated, but it cost more than $5
billion per year in charitable giving by those wealthy Americans who could keep
their money to themselves now.

 

We Got the Really Important Stuff Done

 The White House and its supporters like to defend the faith-based
initiative by insisting that the meat of the effort was really in the executive
orders, not in the legislative efforts that got left on the floor of the
negotiating room. Those orders supposedly leveled the playing field to allow
faith-based organizations to operate like any other grantee, without
restrictions.

 

I can understand why Towey makes so much of this point-the fact that
faith-based groups were already on a level playing field is particularly
embarrassing for him. According to Kuo, Towey was focused on the "problem" of
religious groups not being able to hire based on religious affiliation. "He
thought it was crucial to show what a big problem it was," writes Kuo. "He
wanted to issue a new White House report on how faith-based groups were being
discriminated against because some federal programs prohibited them from hiring
as they desired." So Towey ordered his staff to scour the country for examples
of grant-receiving faith-based organizations that had encountered hiring
difficulties.

 

I think you see where this is going. After hundreds of calls, his staff
couldn't identify one example of a faith-based organization not being able to
hire the employees they wanted. Most were confused by the question-it's not as
if non-profits have folks knocking down the doors looking to work for them.
Even so, Bush's brave defense of the rights of religious organizations allowed
the White House to portray him as a savior. And allowed them to continue
deflecting attention from whether or not there were any new funds in the pot
for those same groups.

 

Don't Be Naïve

Towey's final criticism of Kuo is that the younger man was just too
unschooled in the ways of politics, that it's unrealistic to expect political
promises to be carried out in the hard-scrabble world of politics. But that's
odd, because Towey himself expressed serious frustration with the White House's
refusal to make the faith-based initiative a priority. In May of 2002, he sent
an email to his superiors at the White House to complain:

 

"The references to FB [faith-based] issues in welfare speeches and education
events, while welcome, do not effectively move the legislation. We have waited
for a high-level call from the West Wing to [Senate Finance Chair Max] Baucus
for nearly two weeks, to no avail….Senate Finance, meanwhile, schedules trade
and welfare reform because that is what the West Wing is calling for….I don't
know what I can do more under this present system other than to say that the
current path we are on is likely to leave the FB legislation lingering."

 

Towey was as right to be frustrated then as he is wrong to be making excuses
for the White House today.

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