Back to School Means Back to Work for Congress

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Back to School Means Back to Work for Congress

William Smith

The future of federal funding for abstinence-only education.

While parents and children were soaking up the last bits of summer and buying the latest gear for the return to school, the usually quiet August recess for Congress was punctuated by a good old-fashion American political sex scandal. The disgraced and soon to be former Senator Craig's layover prowl in Minneapolis' airport, coupled with Senator Vitter's (R-LA) earlier July admission of marital infidelity in hiring a sex worker, has significantly undermined the Republican "family values" brigade that has held firm sway in Congress since 1995.

Given this, when it comes to sex education, the question now becomes whether Democrats will carry on the social conservatives' agenda by continuing to pour money into abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. That we're posing the question is a real problem. That the answer remains something less than a definitive "no" is even more distressing.

Make no mistake: Congress' actions before the August recess were not all bad news. Let's start with the good news and where that may take us.

Early news reports suggested that House Democrats would not renew one of the largest pots of abstinence-only-until-marriage money, the Title V funding that comes to the states. This set off hopeful and too-certain conclusions that this fight was sewn up. It wasn't. Those reports were premature at best and failed to recognize that action does not always follow intent in Washington.

Roe is gone. The chaos is just beginning.

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For the better part of its existence, the Title V abstinence-only-until-marriage program has been legislatively tied to another program called Transitional Medical Assistance (TMA). TMA is important because it provides a health services safety net for those in our country who may have no other recourse for care. Republicans leaders have long taken advantage of this and tied TMA's reauthorization to Title V abstinence-only-until-marriage funding — a marriage of convenience from which an amicable divorce has been difficult.

Early news reports failed to take this marriage under consideration, even as some Democratic leaders were testing the murky waters of a trial separation. It wasn't possible. This was not because of cowardice on the part of Democratic leaders but based on the reality that the votes simply are not there. Consequently, and as part of the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) legislation, House Democrats reauthorized TMA and the Title V abstinence-only-until-marriage program. But I promised you good news and here is where that comes in. The reauthorization of Title V included some very important changes that will, if enacted, minimize the harm of continued abstinence-only-until-marriage programs and create the first federal funding stream to support age-appropriate sex education for America's youth.

The House SCHIP bill expands the existing law to support additional education programs that go beyond the simplistic (not to mentioned failed) abstinence-only-until-marriage approach. There are 11 states currently not participating in the Title V abstinence-only-until-marriage funding scheme and an additional dozen or so that are awaiting federal action to allow flexibility or they too will also likely pull out. This new flexibility provision meets this need and, in the process, supports the efforts of states to implement policies and programs that provide sex education in a more comprehensive way. The feds have never done this before. Some states will likely continue to fund abstinence-only-until-marriage programs; we of course wish that were not the case. But the reality is that it was this outcome or a straightforward reauthorization exactly as the program currently exists. Given the options, this is indeed good news.

The Senate's SCHIP bill is silent on both TMA and Title V abstinence-only-until-marriage which means the House and Senate need to put the pieces together from their respective bills this month before SCHIP expires on September 30. Many of us are working to keep the significant rewrite of the Title V abstinence-only-until-marriage in the final bill. Of course, that may all be for naught should the President come through on his promised veto of the bill due to what he deems excessive spending. If that happens, we may have to revisit this in its entirety.

Now for the bad news, or, if you're a glass half empty kind of person, the worse news. As many know, the House has proposed increasing funding for the worst abstinence-only-until-marriage programs-the Community Based Abstinence Education programs (CBAE)- by nearly $28 million. What's worse, they included abstinence-only-until-marriage programs under the rubric of common ground efforts to reduce the number of abortions. The evidence is clear that these programs don't even affect sexual behaviors. For Democrats to give them credence by suggesting that they can be part of reducing abortions is ridiculous and an affront to the Prevention First agenda that is a hallmark issue of the Democratic Caucus. The increase was a ploy to lure enough Republicans to support the bill and override a Presidential veto. This was optimistic at best and has since devolved into a colossal miscalculation and utter failure.

Fortunately, the House's blunder can be remedied by solidarity and discipline in ceding to what the Senate has done which is to cut these same programs by $28 million. Unfortunately, the appropriations process is a complete mess and the bill that funds the Department of Health and Human Services may get rolled in with something else. Nonetheless, the opportunity to do the right thing will more than likely present itself in one way or another this year and passing these appropriations bills is front and center on Congress' agenda.

With the lame-duck President's approval rating continuing to falter among the public and all of his top advisors fleeing from his collapse, the Congress has an opportunity to reestablish some semblance of balance between the Executive and Congressional powers. This can be accomplished by acting in a way that creates a new and different direction than what we've been force-fed by Bush and the Gingrich and DeLay Congresses of the past decade.

The President has made the promotion of abstinence-only-until-marriage one of the key pillars of his right wing agenda dressed up as compassionate conservatism. But a pig in lipstick is still just a pig. This billion-dollar spending spree by Bush has nothing to show for it but an emboldened and well-financed cadre of right wing groups in communities across the country. And, moreover, resources for efforts that actually work have been siphoned off to finance this nonsense. In channeling Karl Rove, one might add: “Just as intended.”

The new Congressional leadership can support abstinence education by getting on with the process of cutting money to programs that fail to increase rates of abstinence. In turn, a new direction begins with funding sex education programs with a broader focus that actually do a better job of helping young people abstain than do those favored by Bush, Gingrich, DeLay – and yes, Vitter and Craig.