The Magazine

The House Keeps Faith with Bush

The president's initiative passes its first big hurdle.

Jul 30, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 43 • By JOE LOCONTE
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Liberals meanwhile accuse the Bush initiative of ushering in the government establishment of religion. They argued in committee that charities would trample the rights of program participants by demanding they join religious activities in exchange for services. Bill supporters tried to quell these fears with rules previously approved by Congress under charitable choice: Whenever direct grants are involved, individuals must be allowed to choose a secular program. And religious activities—such as Bible teaching, evangelism, and worship—must be funded privately.

But committee hardliners—including Scott, John Conyers, Barney Frank, and Jerrold Nadler—weren’t satisfied. So the bill further stipulates that religious activities be "voluntary for the individuals receiving services and offered separate from the program funded." Clients who remain in faith-based programs can opt out of activities they don’t like. An aide to House conservatives says they worried that too many organizations would bolt if an opt-out provision remained without a voucher plan. Under current law, organizations receiving indirect assistance—vouchers—need not segregate their secular and religious services. The provision, called "beneficiary choice," survived with virtually no Democratic opposition.

That’s good news for the president, especially since little remains of another major feature of his initiative—incentives to boost charitable giving. The legislation allows tax-free contributions from individual retirement accounts, and establishes liability protection for corporate donors to charities. But Bush wanted taxpayers who don’t itemize—about 70 percent of all taxpayers—to be able to deduct their charitable contributions. The White House had originally proposed that the charitable deduction equal the amount of the standard deduction—$4,300 for single returns, $7,350 for joint returns.

But the House Ways and Means Committee capped the deduction at $25 per person, $50 for joint filers—derisory sums, considering that the average non-itemizer gives $328 a year to charities. While the Bush plan would have cost $84 billion over 10 years, it was expected to boost giving by $15 billion annually. The legislation approved by the House would cost just $13.3 billion. No one expects it to cause hardly a ripple in charitable donations.

Joe Loconte is the William E. Simon fellow in religion and a free society at the Heritage Foundation.