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Faith-Based Plan Lacks Funds, Ex-Official Says

Times Staff Writers

A former White House official on Monday accused the Bush administration of overstating its commitment to faith-based charities and failing to live up to the president’s promise of “compassionate conservatism.”

David Kuo joined the White House staff in January 2001 and left in December 2003 as deputy director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. He lodged his complaints in an essay published Monday on the website beliefnet.com.

Kuo wrote that he was “saddened” by the administration’s failure to fully fund the faith-based initiative -- hailed by Bush since the 2000 campaign as a centerpiece of his effort to transform the social welfare system.

Instead, Kuo said, the faith-based initiative was “a whisper of what was promised.”

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The initiative was created to direct money to religious organizations that Bush contended were more effective than government bureaucracies in helping the needy.

Disagreements in Congress over how to implement the program forced the president to enact a scaled-down version through executive order.

Kuo said the administration did not push hard enough for the program, citing the failure to support a tax incentive, promised by Bush, to promote charitable giving. The measure, which by some estimates would have cost as much as $30 billion over 10 years, would have allowed taxpayers who do not itemize deductions to get a break for donations to charities.

Kuo noted that in June 2001, the charitable tax break was removed from a large tax-cut bill, replaced by a measure that primarily benefited the wealthy -- the estate-tax repeal.

Bush has proposed the charity tax incentive in recent years, but it has never been enacted. Aides said he did not even offer it this month in his new budget because it was not realistic.

White House officials discounted Kuo’s essay. The faith-based program “has been a top priority for President Bush since the beginning of his first term and continues to be a top priority,” said spokesman Trent Duffy.

But Kuo’s essay marks a rare event for a White House that demands loyalty from its current and former staffers, and it showers criticism on a department that been controversial since Bush created it four years ago.

The essay echoes sentiments of another former White House official, John J. DiIulio Jr., the first director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. He resigned in August 2001 after seven months on the job, and was subsequently quoted in Esquire magazine as saying that the White House was run by “Mayberry Machiavellians” who sometimes put politics ahead of other causes.

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Kuo’s essay follows a report last month in the Los Angeles Times detailing the political benefits of the faith-based program, which helped court support for Bush’s reelection among African American and Latino clergy by establishing ties between the administration and their churches. Democrats have contended that the initiative has emerged as a tool to buy minority votes -- a charge that White House officials vehemently deny.

Kuo noted with irony that the Democrats’ accusations were off the mark.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” he wrote. “There wasn’t enough money around to buy anyone.”

But he did say that by encouraging interest in the faith-based initiative among nontraditional GOP voters, “powerful inroads were made” to minority groups.

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Kuo charges that the White House is promoting an expansion of its faith-based initiative when, in fact, funding has been cut. He complains that “even the grandly announced new programs aren’t what they appear.”

One of those, he said, is the anti-gang initiative announced by Bush in his State of the Union address early this month and headed by Laura Bush. The program was hailed as new, but, Kuo said, the $50-million annual cost is coming out of the “already meager” $100-million request for a faith-based project, the Compassion Capital Fund. The fund is designed to help religious charities master the art of applying for federal grants.

Other programs, such as those for children of prisoners, have received about $500 million over four years -- “or approximately $6.3 billion less” than the $6.8 billion the administration once promised, Kuo wrote.

Despite his sharp criticisms, Kuo said he believed that Bush was sincere about the faith-based program. In some areas, such as easing the application process for charities seeking federal dollars, the initiative has succeeded, he said.

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Kuo said his essay was not intended to heap blame solely on the White House, and accused Democrats in Congress of a “knee-jerk” opposition to the program and Republicans of a “snoring indifference.”

But what made matters worse, he wrote, “was minimal senior White House commitment to the faith-based agenda.”


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