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 Washington Notebook

February 2, 2005
Vol. 2, No. 5

Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent


To test the theory [that stable marriage is the key to solving poverty] the Bush administration wants to spend $1.5 billion over five years, which, as [Mike] McManus told me 14 months ago, "is a lot of money." He told me, "I hope someone will fund us to do it."

Mike McManus, co-chair of the Potomac, Md.-based nonprofit Marriage Savers, apparently got his wish.
The organization ultimately received nearly $60,000 to promote marriage.


Inside the Washington triangle:
What the punditry-for-hire story reveals about how Washington really works

By Joe Feuerherd

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 are familiar with the Health and Human Services marriage effort (NCR, Nov. 28, 2003 Bush's antipoverty weapon). Though there's little hard science behind it, there's a vast body of literature (of 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, day care 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 plans to divert funds from Head Start and programs to assist runaway children to establish a federal "Marriage Resource Center" were 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.

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." Among the recipients: the U.S. bishops' Department of Migration and Refugee services, which is working with 20 dioceses to implement marriage skills programs for new arrivals to the United States. In addition to helping refugees, the funds allow diocesan refugee resettlement, family life, and local Catholic Charities offices to develop the infrastructure they will need to apply for funds when the "healthy marriage" money becomes available, Sheila Garcia, assistant director of the Secretariat for Family, Laity, Women and Youth of the U.S. bishops' conference, told me in 2003. "We've told them that if they are interested in getting in on the ground floor, this is the way to go," said Garcia.

Meanwhile, the marriage entrepreneurs beyond the beltway are confused. "Has all the community marriage strengthening money now been assigned?" an anxious potential grantee asked Diane Sollee, founder and director of the Washington-based Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education. The e-mail continued: "It looks like we may be too late. Also, do you know if there has been an attempt to equitably divide the money between the states? Florida received three grants. What's up with that?"

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Sollee reassured the marriage trainer. "The grants announced so far are not even part of the 'official' marriage-strengthening funding we keep talking about; that is still coming, (we expect/hope)." As to the distribution of funds, Sollee wrote, "I don't know how that works. Maybe if all the best grants come from one state they'll get all the money?? We'll all just move to that state!"

Outside pressure on Congress is an important part of the equation, which is where Gallagher came in. As part of her contract with Health and Human Services, she ghostwrote an article on "Closing the Marriage Gap" for Horn. The article appeared in the June 2002 issue of Crisis, the conservative Catholic monthly.

Gallagher-as-Horn wrote that "children raised by their own parents in healthy and stable married families enjoy better physical and mental health and are less likely to be poor. They're more successful in school, have lower dropout rates, and fewer teenage pregnancies. They abuse drugs less and have fewer encounters with the criminal law."

Self-evident as that might sound, there was more.

Gallagher-as-Horn argued that married people earn more money than single people. To buttress this controversial finding, Gallagher-as-Horn cited an expert author. Who might that have been? None other than Maggie Gallagher, who in addition to writing a column and moonlighting for the government is the coauthor of The Case for Marriage.

So what do we have here? A syndicated columnist uses her position to get a no-bid contract with the government to ghostwrite articles in which she promotes her own book. Good work if you can get it.

To which Gallagher gives a version of the Steve Martin defense. ("What do I say to the tax man when he comes to my door and says, 'You have never paid taxes?' " the comedian asked in the mid-1970s bit. "Two simple words. Two simple words in the English language: 'I forgot!' How many times do we let ourselves get into terrible situations because we don't say, 'I forgot'?")

Said Gallagher: "I should have disclosed a government contract when I later wrote about the Bush marriage initiative. I would have, if I had remembered it."

Such forgetfulness will no longer be tolerated, says President Bush. "All our Cabinet secretaries must realize that we will not be paying commentators to advance our agenda," he told a Jan. 26 press conference. "Our agenda ought to be able to stand on its own two feet."

On its "own two feet?" Well, maybe. More likely, however, the three-legged triangle -- the holy trinity of government largess -- will continue to exert its influence.

The e-mail address for Joe Feuerherd is

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