LIHEAP — the Low-Income Housing Energy Assistance Program — seems like it should be a natural for President George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism."
The federal program provides financial assistance for poor households to allow them to pay their heating bills during the winter. "Financial assistance for poor households" may not seem like a high priority for President Bush, but consider the ultimate destiny of this money. It simply allows households who otherwise would not be able to do so to pay for oil or natural gas. The roughly $2 billion that the federal government spent on this program in FY 2003 provided vital and necessary assistance to thousands of poor households, but every dime of it eventually found its way to the energy companies that provide the heat.
The combination of a colder-than-normal winter and higher-than-normal natural gas prices has hit low-income households hard this winter. With nearly two months of winter left, the LIHEAP funds are nearly all spent in many northern states.
Elaine Allegrini of The (Mass.) Enterprise describes the situation for many poor households in Massachusetts:
The recent cold wave that began last week and resumed this week flooded agencies with requests for help to pay for home heating. But this year, administrators of the state fuel-assistance program expect many will be turning to Citizens for Energy, the Salvation Army and community programs because state benefits have been reduced and the demand for fuel is up.
When the cold weather arrived, the calls for help started coming in, said Philomena Hare, social services director for the Salvation Army in Brockton.
"The requests are too numerous to count," she said. "People are calling, saying they have no oil. If they were eligible for fuel assistance, they may have already used it up." …
Mark Sullivan, executive director of Citizens for Citizens … predicted the situation will get worse before it gets better, not just because of the weather, but because of the lack of federal funds to maintain the program as it has been in past years. …
"Last year, the maximum benefit was $700," Sullivan said. "This year, the maximum benefit is $490 because there's not enough money."
The state determines the benefit, based on the amount of money provided in the federal budget and the number of households served.
These poor households need help. Specifically, they need federal help — an increase in funding for LIHEAP to help them get through the winter.
Our president characterizes himself as a "compassionate" conservative. He may, of course, as George Lakoff cautions, be using that term differently than one might expect, but it's still tempting to take it at face value and appeal to the president's compassion, asking him to increase funding and help these poor families.
I'm not terribly optimistic about such an approach. So here's Plan B:
Dear Mr. President:
I've figured out a way for you to funnel another $500 million to your buddies in the oil and gas industry. And you'll be able to do it openly, without any of those annoying liberals criticizing you for it.
The trick is to launder the money through poor households. Simply add another $500 million in emergency funding for LIHEAP (don't worry about what it stands for, Andy can handle those details). You can call this "compassionate." You can call this "economic stimulus." And, since a lot of these LIHEAP funds are administered through charities like the Salvation Army, you can call this a "faith-based initiative."
You could even make a big deal out of how you're providing assistance to help low-income families in places like Massachusetts (home of John Kerry), Vermont (home of Howard Dean — the guy Karl was telling you about) and South Dakota (home of Tom Daschle).
But the bottom line is that this money ultimately goes back to your good friends in the energy biz. How could you possibly object to that?