Inside the Triangle: What Punditry-for-Hire Story Reveals about How Washington Works

Article excerpt

The ongoing punditry-for-hire brouhaha reveals a lot about how Washington works. While coverage has focused on the ethics of pseudo-journalists accepting government funds to covertly promote administration policies, that's only part--though an admittedly delicious part--of the story.

USA Today reported Jan. 7 that a public relations firm headed by conservative commentator Armstrong Williams was paid $240,000 by the Education Department to promote the "No Child Left Behind" legislation. Additional revelations followed: The Department of Health and Human Services contracted with syndicated columnists and marriage entrepreneurs Maggie Gallagher, president of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, and Mike McManus, co-chair of the Potomac, Md.-based nonprofit Marriage Savers. Gallagher received $21,500 to speak and write articles and brochures promoting the administration's proposals, while Marriage Savers received nearly $60,000 for its services.

NCR readers may recall my earlier reporting, on the Health and Human Services marriage effort (NCR, Nov. 29, 2003). Though there's little hard science behind it, there's a vast body of literature (to which Gallagher and McManus are contributors) asserting that stable marriage is the key to solving poverty. The idea is that married couples earn more money and provide more stable settings to raise children than do female-headed households mired in poverty. To test the theory the Bush administration wants to spend $1.5 billion over five years, which, as McManus told me 14 months ago, "is a lot of money." McManus was unabashed in his desire to secure federal grants to establish "Community Marriage Policies" throughout the country. "I hope someone will fund us to do it," he told me. (Apparently, he got his wish.)

It's the old Washington triangle. First, interest groups, lobbyists and, in this case, the pseudo-journalists, promote a solution (marriage) to a problem (poverty) that only they--the experts--can solve. Then they convince the powers-that-be (in this case Health and Human Services) to support their solution, which was an easy task in this case, since Wade Horn, the presidentially appointed assistant secretary for children and families in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is a longtime leader in the "marriage movement." (He previously served on McManus' board.) Then the bureaucrats and the interest groups combine forces to convince Congress that their idea is worth funding.

The money vehicle in this case is the reauthorization of the 1996 welfare reform act, which is stalled in large part as a result of Senate Democratic opposition to the administration's marriage proposal. Democrats argue that the $1.5 billion would be better spent on job training, daycare and education than on federally subsidized marriage counseling and matchmaking.

The funding stalemate, however, has not slowed Health and Human Services' politically appointed bureaucrats, who miss no opportunity to push the marriage agenda. Over the past four years, for example, the department's skeptical civil servants have been subjected to weekly sessions featuring outside experts from the burgeoning marriage industry. Here, they are educated (reeducated?) about matrimony as the answer to poverty.

The effort was so intense that political appointees tried to divert funds from Head Start and programs to assist runaway children in order to establish a federal "Marriage Resource Center." That plan was quashed by career employees. "It is highly questionable as to whether some of the programs being tapped could properly support the proposed [marriage resource center]," Health and Human Services attorneys told the department's political leadership.

Washington Notebook

Over the objection of nine Democratic members of Congress, $2 million of a $150 million program to aid refugees was set aside to assist "refugee couples who choose marriage for themselves to develop the skills and knowledge to develop and sustain healthy marriages. …