President Bush renewed his commitment yesterday to promoting social welfare through religious groups with taxpayer funds, calling on a balky Congress to lift its "roadblocks" and implicitly rebutting critics who say he has shirked his "compassion agenda."
Setting out a second-term blueprint for advancing his faith-based initiative, Bush highlighted legislation, heading to the House floor today, that would allow religious charities to hire and fire based on religious beliefs even while receiving federal funding. If Congress does not follow his lead, Bush warned that he would try to circumvent lawmakers by using executive powers.
Bush aides hope the president's appearance at a White House conference on faith-based and community initiatives at a time when he has been consumed with Social Security and foreign policy would help quell the discontent among religious supporters who feel abandoned. Two weeks ago, a former Bush aide published a rare attack on the White House, complaining that the president's "promises remain unfulfilled in spirit and in fact" in part because of "minimal senior White House commitment to the faith-based agenda."
Without directly referring to that criticism, Bush assured an audience of community and religious leaders gathered at a Washington hotel yesterday that his dedication to the cause remains undiminished. "I am here to talk about my continued commitment to faith-based and community groups because I'm firmly committed to making sure every American can realize the promise of our country," he said.
To make the point, the White House released data showing that 600 religious organizations obtained federal grants for the first time in the past two years and that faith-based groups now receive 10 percent of available social service grants, compared with 8 percent a year earlier. Overall, the White House said, the federal government gave $2 billion last year to religious groups running homeless shelters, drug treatment clinics and other social programs.
"So we're making progress," Bush said. "There's more to do." Among other things, he wants to expand deductions for food donations, allow Americans to donate to charity money from Individual Retirement Accounts without penalty and encourage states to direct more money to religious groups that provide social services.
Bush made his faith-based initiative a central element of his first presidential campaign, in 2000, as he sought to present himself as a compassionate conservative melding traditional Republican support for church and liberal concern for poverty. But the agenda was quickly overshadowed after Sept. 11, 2001, and Congress resisted many aspects of the program, with Democrats complaining about government involvement in religion and Republicans leery of expanding welfare-related spending.
Critics maintain that the White House could have overcome opposition if it really wanted to. David Kuo, deputy director of Bush's faith-based office during his first term, posted an essay on the Internet two weeks ago lamenting that the White House "never really wanted the 'poor people stuff.' "
Ronald J. Sider, the president of Evangelicals for Social Action who met with Bush to talk about the initiative after the 2000 election, said the program is important "and maybe even historic." But he said Bush has failed to tackle the fundamental causes of poverty while emphasizing only the value of spiritual renewal. "The result is they tend to exaggerate the importance of that and ignore the structural part of it," Sider said. "In my more cynical moments, I wonder if he cares about the poor at all."
Experts on federal spending said it is unclear whether funding for faith-based groups has risen under Bush because in the past the federal government did not keep a separate tally of those grants. The $2 billion spent by seven agencies in fiscal 2004 is "not trivial," said Alan J. Abramson, director of the Nonprofit Sector and Philanthropy Program at the Aspen Institute, "but we don't know what the comparable figures are, going back in time."
Since the government has never measured how much all those agencies spent on such grants in previous years, a better apples-to-apples comparison involves just five agencies, which spent $1.17 billion on faith-based grants in fiscal 2003, compared with $1.33 billion last year. White House officials said the increase came despite an $800 million reduction in the total money available.
In an interview yesterday, Kuo welcomed Bush's speech. "My hope is that everything the president announced becomes reality," he said. "That would begin to fulfill his financial promises." But Kuo added that if the proportion of funds for religious groups has increased because the overall pie has shrunk, "that isn't a fulfillment of the president's original compassionate-conservative promises, it is a rejection."
Jim Towey, director of the White House faith-based office, took issue with his former deputy's overall assessment. "David is entitled to his opinion," Towey said yesterday. "I can certainly cite for you facts that show . . . that President Bush has made the faith-based and community initiative a top priority."