Cover Story

Rolling the Dice

"Rolling the Dice" Continued...

Issue: "Rolling the dice," Aug. 4, 2001

The executive said that a homeless shelter that had, say, a short sermon after dinner could still have it by offering those who came a choice between writing a paper after dinner or listening to the message. "They'll come to the sermon but it's been voluntary, because you've given them an option," he said. Asked about H.R. 7's mandate to separate the "religious" and "nonreligious" parts of programs, a TeamBush insider said that biblical and secular teaching could be interwoven, "as long as you do it right and keep separate books."

Barney Frank (D-Mass.) told The Washington Post that the revised H.R. 7 impressed him: "They did write it in very strong language that says you cannot use this money to do anything religious." But that's not so, according to one TeamBush member, who says the Esbeck language allows many opportunities for religious groups. For example, say a church sets up a government-funded program, "Fight Poverty, Inc.," that teaches biblical principles using secular language. Someone from the church may pass out free Bibles before class, "and if someone asks a question about a principle, the instructor can go to the Bible," because he's responding to participant interest. The instructor can also announce that the church will offer personal counseling or individual help after class.

That administration apologetic for H.R. 7's restrictive language "has the ring of truth," said Ken Connor, president of the Family Research Council, who has been in many discussions with White House officials. Mr. Connor added, however, that his view of how legislation should be developed is different: "Let's deal with this on a straight-up basis. Public policy ought not to be accomplished through the art of the dodge and the feint."

The biggest feint of all, according to one executive close to the White House, has been the entire debate over separating "religious" and "nonreligious" content. "Let people fight over that. It's all a show," he said. "We kick and scream. We don't roll over too easy on language, or else they'll think it's what you wanted." What's truly important in the legislation, he said, is a "stealth provision" about vouchers: "Let people argue over grants, but get the vouchers passed."

The paragraph slipped into H.R. 7 gives the Secretaries of HUD, HHS, or other departments the authority to "direct the disbursement of some or all of the funds" in the form of vouchers given to the needy. The voucher option has received little attention because of John DiIulio's emphasis on grant-making, but one source involved in recent White House discussions said that "DiIulio has almost entirely been bypassed. He's a figurehead," a useful lobbyist "in a show palace ... and we're doing behind the scenes for him."

Just as the June inclusion of a secondary opt-out made liberals happy, so the inclusion of vouchers pleased conservatives. Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, said, "Voucherization is almost like a magic wand that deals with almost all the thorny church-state problems." Rep. Tancredo finally decided to vote for H.R. 7 because of the voucher provision: "If you take a voucher, you don't have to change your program." He hopes President Bush will promote vouchers and hopes that "if we have three years at least of a program in which hundreds of thousands of people are voucher recipients, it will become harder to change that."

Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.) also was pleased with the voucher provision: He "had initial concern that there would be restrictions, that people would not be able to speak about life-changing experiences," but the addition of nonrestrictive vouchers to the package eased that concern. One bump in the road almost sent conservatives over the edge: Some cautious TeamBush hands, worried about Democratic reaction, wanted the opt-out provision to apply to voucherized programs. Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.) and other conservatives, however, stressed that "if they did that we would be gone"-abandoning H.R. 7.

As it turned out, the administration was ready to proceed with an unrestricted voucher plan. Earlier this year, in memos sent to WORLD, Carl Esbeck had emphasized the importance of differentiating "between indirect and direct funding. Indirect funding, via vouchers, tax credits, and the like, permits aid to [religiously] integrated faith-based organizations." Mr. Esbeck emphasized the importance of not doing anything that would "result in the Federal charitable choice law being declared unconstitutional," but once he gave a green light to vouchers without an opt-out the deal was done.

With some liberals assuaged by the religion-restricting language and conservatives jazzed by the voucher position, the rejiggered H.R. 7 made its debut on June 28 in 2141 Rayburn, the venue for its House Judiciary committee mark-up. The process of discussing and voting on amendments was long (10:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.) but, from the GOP perspective, flawless, as party-line voting inserted the Sensenbrenner-Esbeck changes and kept out Democratic proposals. A brief debate did break out on how to pronounce the word proselytization.

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