- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 21, 2002

The publicity from President Bush's executive order opening a White House faith-based office undercut the administration's ability to quietly shepherd through the initiative, a presidential scholar said yesterday.
The "fast and momentous" executive action created too high an expectation for an office that lacked autonomy in decisions on policy, staff and budget, said the University of Pennsylvania's Kathryn Dunn Tenpas.
The office's "go-slow approach" to building a consensus also clashed with a Republican rush on Capitol Hill to pass faith-based legislation, she said at a forum yesterday at the Washington offices of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace summarizing her 16-page report on the Office for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.
Miss Tempas, who conducted the study at the Brookings Institution, cited as a success story a second executive order that was an "under-the-radar coup." That order appointed five Cabinet agency offices to start the "rewriting of hundreds of regulations" to allow religious welfare services easier access to federal grants.
She repeated the common interpretation that the Bush initiative sparked "far more controversy than anticipated," though Bush officials say they always knew the initiative would be attacked by partisans and interest groups and they hoped for the best.
At the forum, James Towey, the office's new director since earlier this month, responded to the report by saying Mr. Bush's goal of creating an "equal playing field" for religious service groups has not been deterred.
"The support of the office is unflinching," he said, and he hopes to "return the debate back to why the office existed in the first place."
He said the idea was to help all effective service groups in solving social problems.
Mr. Towey, who worked with Mother Teresa and headed welfare services in Florida, described the White House office's first year as operating in "an organic environment."
Miss Tenpas said the office was overshadowed, if not stalled, by White House political focus on tax cuts and education reform.
Since 1996, four federal laws have been passed to allow religious groups to bid more easily for government welfare grants. Still, Mr. Towey said, "There are real-world barriers to participation of faith-based organizations in programs the government funds."
Paul Light, director of government studies at Brookings, said smaller groups that are legally eligible to use government money for welfare services are squeezed out by discrimination or large organizations.
Meanwhile, he said, the faith-based office is more like "staff to the president, advisory," and not a political entity that could have pushed through new laws or reforms.
Mr. Light said the rewriting of regulations will have the most effect, and that in five years government money trails will show whether small groups or religious projects get the share to which they are entitled. "We will be able to track them," Mr. Light said.
He said the main challenge for the Bush initiative is to find charitable and faith-based groups with the "organizational capacity" to handle the funds and to enlist volunteers.
The Tenpas report, commissioned by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, also said there was no "natural constituency" for new charitable-choice legislation because both liberals and conservatives had reason to oppose government financial links to religious groups.


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