Columnists > Voices

Pork and principle

Is Congress ready to step up to the poverty-fighting plate?

Issue: "Rick Santorum: Penn Station," April 30, 2005

Sometimes Sen. Rick Santorum concludes a long day by searching three websites for information on "fantasy baseball" players and prospects. (In a fantasy baseball league, each participant chooses major-league players for his team, with standings dependent on the real-life hitting or pitching performance of each player throughout the season.)

Over the past 10 years his entry in a 12-team Senate office league has won the championship five times. But even here politics rules: Since Pennsylvania has two National League teams, the Santorum league is "American League only so I don't have to root against my own teams. I can be a general manager without any sentimental complications."

Hmmm . . . what to make of that? As readers of this column for the past dozen years know, my cup runneth over when it comes to baseball analogies. Two come to mind here. First, today's bulked-up federal government is like baseball overrun with steroids, aka pork-barrel expenditures. Almost every senator and congressman shoots up a little or a lot, and the result is a massive deficit that has only one redeeming feature: It keeps legislators from shooting up even more. Those who don't indulge, or at least try to minimize consumption, are at a political disadvantage.

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Second, Washington's poverty-fighting league has become once again one of the least imaginative around. From 1965 through 1995 Democrats expanded bureaucratic programs that did not offer challenging, personal, or spiritual help, and Republicans typically harrumphed that welfare cost too much. Welfare reform in 1996 was a great improvement, and many of us involved in that contest thought we were in only the first inning, with lots of action to come. Instead, senators and congressmen congratulated each other at that point and suspended the rest of the game.

Now, Mr. Santorum and three co-sponsors of the Senate Republican Poverty Alleviation Agenda-Sam Brownback of Kansas, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, and Jim Talent of Missouri-are on the field again and trying to rally others. Their 12-part agenda includes some excellent items:

• Passage of the CARE Act, which would allow non-itemizers to deduct from income taxes their charitable contributions, encourage contributions from IRAs and other accounts, and provide incentives for food donations to those in need.

• Welfare reform reauthorization, which (unless ruined by amendments) will continue the progress made possible by the 1996 legislation; since then welfare rolls are down by over 50 percent, millions have exchanged welfare checks for paychecks, and fewer children are impoverished.

• Passage or expansion of tax credits for companies that transport donated food, construct or refurbish homes affordable by low-income people, or hire the poor. (Instead of adding specialized credits that merely counteract some of the disincentives created by existing law, regulation, and litigation, Congress should pass a general tax credit for poverty-fighting donations from individual taxpayers-but such tax simplification is probably a fantasy.

• Charitable liability reform to expand protection for contributors of vehicles and other equipment to nonprofits. (This is one area where we have seen legislative progress through measures such as the Volunteer Protection Act and the Good Samaritan Food Donation Act.)

• Creation of a commission that would review existing federal social service programs with the goal of expanding use of vouchers. Social service vouchers-currently used in child care, housing, and the new Access to Recovery program for drug treatment services-expand consumer choice and minimize governmental pressure on faith-based groups to segment (if that were truly possible) religious content from provision of services.

Two measures originating with members of the House of Representatives are also worth mentioning: the education tax credit bill of Arizona's Trent Franks (see "The royal treatment," April 9, 2005), and a resolution developed by George Radanovich (R-Calif.) to encourage Americans to increase typical charitable giving from about 2 percent of income to 3 percent. (Exhortation without incentives probably won't work, but it's good that some in Washington are thinking of ways to increase citizens' giving rather than government's taking.)

Will any measures with teeth pass? On "social justice" questions, Congress has three blocs: compassionate conservatives who care about the poor, liberals who care about the poor but ignore 20th-century experience, and Social Darwinists who don't care. Do the math.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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