By Thomas B. Edsall
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 22, 2006
For years, conservatives have complained about what they saw as the liberal tilt of federal grant money. Taxpayer funds went to abortion rights groups such as Planned Parenthood to promote birth control, and groups closely aligned with the AFL-CIO got Labor Department grants to run worker-training programs.
In the Bush administration, conservatives are discovering that turnabout is fair play: Millions of dollars in taxpayer funds have flowed to groups that support President Bush's agenda on abortion and other social issues.
Under the auspices of its religion-based initiatives and other federal programs, the administration has funneled at least $157 million in grants to organizations run by political and ideological allies, according to federal grant documents and interviews.
An example is Heritage Community Services in Charleston, S.C. A decade ago, Heritage was a tiny organization with deeply conservative social philosophy but not much muscle to promote it. An offshoot of an antiabortion pregnancy crisis center, Heritage promoted abstinence education at the county fair, local schools and the local Navy base. The budget was $51,288.
By 2004, Heritage Community Services had become a major player in the booming business of abstinence education. Its budget passed $3 million -- much of it in federal grants distributed by Bush's Department of Health and Human Services -- supporting programs for students in middle school and high school in South Carolina, Georgia and Kentucky.
Among other new beneficiaries of federal funding during the Bush years are groups run by Christian conservatives, including those in the African American and Hispanic communities. Many of the leaders have been active Republicans and influential supporters of Bush's presidential campaigns.
Programs such as the Compassion Capital Fund, under the Health and Human Services, are designed to support religion-based social services, a goal that inevitably funnels money to organizations run by people who share Bush's conservative cultural agenda.
"If what you are asking is, has George Bush as president of the United States established priorities in spending for his administration? The answer is yes," said Wade F. Horn, who as assistant secretary for children and families at HHS oversees much of the spending going to conservative groups. "That is a prerogative that presidents have."
Horn and other officials said politics has not played a role in making grants. "Whoever got these grants wrote the best applications, and the panels in rating these grants rated them objectively, based on the criteria we published in the Federal Register," he said. "Whether they support the president or not is not a test in any of my grant programs."
"These are just slush funds for conservative interest groups," countered Bill Smith, vice president of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, one of the most outspoken critics of abstinence-only sex-education programs. "These organizations would not be in existence if not for the federal dollars coming through."
H. James Towey, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, said politics plays no role in grant-making decisions. "We don't have that kind of calculation," he said.
Most, but not all, of the money going to conservative groups has come from two programs that did not exist before Bush took office in 2001. The Compassion Capital Fund, which distributed $148.3 million from 2002 to 2005, was created "to expand the role that faith-based and community groups play in providing social services to those in need," according to the White House.
The Community-Based Abstinence Education grant program was enacted by Congress in 2001, and $391.7 million has been appropriated for it.
Beneficiaries of more than $2 million each from the compassion fund include five organizations run by black and Hispanic leaders who endorsed Bush and Operation Blessing, a charity run by television evangelist Pat Robertson. It has received $23.5 million, which includes $1.5 million from the Compassion Capital Fund and $22 million in surplus dry milk from the Agriculture Department.
Hundreds of struggling antiabortion and pregnancy crisis centers have received federal grants that often doubled or tripled their annual budgets, allowing them to branch out and hire staff, especially for abstinence education.
The Door of Hope Pregnancy Care Center in Madisonville, Ky., a small outfit of four part-time employees committed "to the belief in the sanctity of human life, primarily as it relates to the protection of the unborn," operated on an annual budget of $75,000 to $79,000, most of it raised from an annual banquet and a "walk for life." Last year, Door of Hope got an abstinence education grant of $317,017, allowing it to hire staff and expand.
In Dyersburg, Tenn., the Life Choices Pregnancy Support Center, where the staff believes "without reservation or qualification that the Scriptures teach that human life begins at conception," had revenue of $81,621 and could pay Executive Director Natalie Wilson $12,247 in 2001. Two years later, the center got a $534,339 grant for abstinence education. By 2004, annual revenue totaled $617,355.
Altogether, local antiabortion and crisis pregnancy centers have received well over $60 million in grants for abstinence education and other programs, according to a Post review of federal records.
The distribution of new money to conservative organizations is a small part of an estimated flood of $2 billion a year in federal grants to religious and religiously affiliated organizations. For decades, in Democratic and Republican administrations, well over $1 billion annually has been going to such groups, most of it to mainline organizations such as Catholic Charities, the Salvation Army and Lutheran Social Services.
The shift under Bush in part grows out of the administration's Faith and Community Based Initiative. Under the initiative, White House officials and new offices in 10 Cabinet-level departments have aggressively sought to widen the "pool" of applicants for federal grants for all kinds. Faith-based organizations are encouraged to apply for grants to operate Head Start and subsidized housing programs.
In a Dec. 12, 2002, executive order, Bush addressed one of the major concerns of religious groups considering applying for public money. Bush declared that religious groups receiving federal grants would not be required to comply with certain civil rights statutes, and could discriminate by hiring employees of specific religious faiths.
Skepticism about the distribution of money under the religion-based initiatives abounds in both parties.
Rep. Mark Edward Souder (R-Ind.), chairman of the Government Reform subcommittee on criminal justice, drug policy and human resources, said the effort "has gone political."
"Quite frankly, part of the reason it went political is because we can't sell it unless we can show Republicans a political advantage to it, because it's not our base," he said, referring to the fact that many of those receiving social services are Democratic voters.
Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Tex.) was more outspoken. "I believe ultimately this will be seen as one of the largest patronage programs in American history," he said.
The Compassion Capital Fund has disbursed many multiyear grants of $1.5 million to $7.5 million to groups designated as "intermediary organizations" empowered, according to the White House to "issue sub-awards directly to qualified faith- and community-based organizations."
In effect, this designation turns the recipient organization into a major dispenser of federal money.
The Institute for Youth Development in Sterling, which is run by Shepherd Smith and his wife, Anita M. Smith, has been awarded $7.5 million over three years. In turn, the institute has parceled out $4.5 million of the federal money in grants of $5,000 to $50,000 to smaller organizations.
Shepherd Smith, who was a top strategist in Pat Robertson's 1988 presidential bid, said the institute's grants were "not an effort on my part to make the right stronger; this was an effort to help little people" who have difficulty getting access to federal money.
The recipients listed on the institute's Web site include many socially conservative groups, among them at least 15 pregnancy crisis and counseling centers that oppose abortion.
The Rev. Luis Cortés's Esperanza USA has received three $2.5 million grants. Cortés is an evangelical Protestant; many of the grants from his organization have gone to Protestant Hispanic providers.
Among organizations run by ordained ministers, every Latino group receiving a large grant is headed by a Protestant. Protestant Hispanics are a key Republican target constituency. From 2000 to 2004, Bush's support among Hispanic Protestants grew from 44 percent to 54 percent, while remaining unchanged among Hispanic Roman Catholics, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
In Milwaukee, a 2004 presidential battleground state, Pentecostal Bishop Sedgwick Daniels's Holy Redeemer Institutional Church of God in Christ was awarded $626,598 in 2003 and $824,471 in 2004 from the Compassion Capital Fund. Daniels, a Bush supporter, was a 2004 Republican National Convention delegate.
In Florida, another presidential battleground state, the National Center for Faith Based Initiatives, run by one of Bush's earliest 2000 supporters in the black community, Bishop Harold Calvin Ray, has received $1.75 million over three years from the compassion fund.
HHS is not the only department making such grants.
The Education Department awarded a $750,000 discretionary grant to the GEO Foundation, run by Kevin Teasley, a former staffer at the libertarian Reason Foundation and conservative Heritage Foundation, and conservative Center for the Study of Popular Culture, to "provide outreach and information" on public-school choice. The department also awarded $1.5 million over three years to the conservative Black Alliance for Educational Options, which was created in 2000 with support from such funders on the right as the Bradley, John M. Olin and Walton Family foundations, to provide information about the No Child Left Behind Act.
In addition to liberals, there are conservative critics of taxpayer funding of groups on the right.
Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, said the grant-making is "corrupting."
"The danger is that any group that gets money from the government will end up serving the interests of the state rather than the constituencies they are trying to serve," he said. "The guy who writes the check writes the rules."