Tuesday, November 22, 2011

When Comparing Apples and Oranges Leads to Lemons

There are lies, damned lies and statistics. So wrote Mark Twain, some say, and that was well before anyone saw the latest Pew Report.

Pew usually does creditable work but the November report from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life makes one pause. In trying to get a handle on advocacy efforts on Capitol Hill, Pew researchers compared apples and oranges and got lemons.

The report is named “Lobbying for the Faithful: Religious Advocacy Groups in Washington, DC,” and that’s where the misconceptions start. The report is less about lobbying than advocacy, and it defines advocacy as broadly as possible. Example: Pew includes work of the bishops’ Office for Film and Broadcasting (OFB) when it speaks of advocacy. OFB reviewers recommend family-friendly movies to people who follow Catholic media. This has nothing to do with congressional activity.

Pew lists the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) as spending more than $26 million on advocacy. It acknowledges that it is speaking about advocacy in broad terms, and not what people generally think of when they think of lobbyists. Whatever Pew meant, its title speaks of “lobbying” for the faithful that may conjure up money changing hands. It makes one think of pro-abortion groups such as Planned Parenthood and NARAL pouring dollars into politicians’ coffers. OpenSecrets.org, for example, says that Planned Parenthood and NARAL stand among “the most generous contributors to federal candidates, parties and committees.” Pew’s use of the word “lobby” led to the Nov. 21 Washington Post headline “Religious lobbying groups multiply on Capitol Hill,” and the Post’s declaration that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops stands among the “biggest spenders.”

Pew acknowledges that its figures for religious advocacy groups, such as USCCB, are imprecise. It got its figures from a USCCB consolidated financial statement that listed all kinds of USCCB activities as “policy activities.” The USCCB may share in the blame for Pew’s skew given its own lack of precision in the statement Pew studied; but “policy” here cannot be equated with “public policy.”

The USCCB does engage in government relations not in electioneering and has three full-time staff assigned to the task. None of them hands out money and the cost of their efforts reaches no where near $26 million. The entire cost of salary and benefits for the entire USCCB staff, in Washington, Miami, New York and Rome, is $29 million, somewhat more than the $26 million Pew claims USCCB pours into lobbying/advocacy. If Pew were right there’d be no funds for USCCB’s central efforts in evangelization, liturgy, helping the poor, educating Catholics, doctrine and canon law.

In estimating advocacy expenses, Pew included costs for the Communications Department, including publishing, media relations, digital media, and Catholic News Service. A look at the activities of these offices suggests something beyond lobbying/advocacy.

Publishing, for example, has spent most of this year working on the revised Roman Missal, so the nation’s 17,000 parishes can pray new responses at Mass starting Nov. 27, the First Sunday of Advent. The only lobbying has been to try to get all the clergy on board as they lament changes in what they’ve gotten used since the missal was revised forty years ago.

Digital media, which conveys church teaching through modern means, boasts of some terrific efforts. Its most popular site by far is the Scripture readings page, where people get the day’s Gospel with the click of a mouse. Its only advocacy is asking God for help. Petitioning the Almighty is not lobbying Congress.

Pew says my own Office of Media Relations does advocacy. Perhaps the occasional blog seems like that, but I spend more time writing about new appointments in dioceses, religious education, vocations to priesthood and the plight of nuns whose retirement funds are woefully underfunded.

Catholic News Service (CNS) is no more into lobbying/advocacy than is the Associated Press, NBC, ABC, CBS, PBS, or any other news agency. It reports the news, whatever it is, and like any other news agency it does not always cultivate friends. I shout or laugh at a CNS news report the same way I shout or laugh at the evening news and morning paper.

The Pew Report may prompt commentary. Hopefully, people will realize its figures are way out of whack.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Memo to HHS: Show Me the Data

When Cuba Gooding Jr. and Tom Cruise yelled “Show me the money” in the movie Jerry Maguire, it was funny. When the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) cries “Show me the data,” it is serious.

“Show me the data” is an urgent request from USCCB’s Migration and Refugee Services. MRS has long worked with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to help refugees, migrating children, and people trafficked to the U.S. for labor and the sex trade. The U.S. Justice Department recently lauded MRS in a brief defending HHS, which is being sued by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for working with Catholics. Said the Justice Department, as reported in the Washington Post, “the bishops have been ‘resoundingly successful in increasing assistance to victims of trafficking.’”

Despite this, a recent anti-trafficking grant application from MRS to continue serving people caught in the 21st Century’s version of human slavery was denied. MRS asks why?

I have been informed that six organizations applied for anti-trafficking grants from HHS’s Office for Refugee Resettlement (ORR). Four scored so low they did not make the cutoff when evaluated by an independent review board. Two applicants scored well. Heartland Human Care Services scored highest and MRS came in second, very close to Heartland, even after losing points for not being willing to refer for contraceptives and abortions. Yet, after finagling by Sharon Parrott, one of three politically-appointed counselors to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, ORR awarded $4.5 million, spread across Heartland, which earned the award, and United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants and Tapestri, groups that hadn’t made the grade according to the independent review board.

HHS denies any hanky-panky. Show me the data.

Ambassador Johnny Young, who now heads MRS after a stellar career in the U.S. diplomatic corps, asked for data. Young, an African-American, has seen plenty of racial discrimination. Meeting with HHS’s George Sheldon he noted that he recognized discrimination again – this time because of his Catholic faith. When Sheldon, Acting Assistant Secretary for HHS’s Administration for Children and Families, denied the deck was stacked, Young said, in effect, show me the data. No answer yet.

USCCB filed a Freedom of Information Act request to see how these decisions were made. Still no answer.

Defenders of HHS say the government has (until now, at least) partnered with the church to help refugees and others in need in diverse programs. As they rattle off grants they sound like a thief declaring “I use banks regularly. This is the only one I’ve robbed.”

Parrott explained her unusual involvement in the grant-making decisions, telling the Washington Post that “when important issues that are a priority arise, it’s common for senior policy advisers to have a dialogue to reach the best policy decision.” So much for President Obama’s 2010 Executive Order that addressed meddling by political appointees, "Fundamental Principles and Policymaking Criteria for Partnerships With Faith-Based and Other Neighborhood Organizations." Said the President: "Decisions about awards of Federal financial assistance must be free from political interference or even the appearance of such interference and must be made on the basis of merit, not on the basis of the religious affiliation of a recipient organization or lack thereof." Something’s amiss.

ORR said that in the 2011 anti-trafficking contracts, it would favor proposals where the recipient would refer for the full range of legally permissible obstetric and gynecological services, a code for contraceptives, abortion and sterilization. It did not say it would simply exclude applicants on this basis. Even with this handicapped status, USCCB beat out USCRI and Tapestri – until apparently the rules changed.

Whether or not this pro-abortion/contraception favoritism is legal is one question. Whether there was a demand for these services is another.

In the hierarchy of needs for trafficking victims, it would seem that safety, food, shelter, legal support and medical care have priority. Do trafficking victims who fear that their traffickers will kill them for escaping think “contraceptives first”? Is it the concern of the men, who as labor-trafficking victims comprised about two-thirds of the survivors who were helped by the previous anti-trafficking grant that MRS held for more than five years? If there were an unmet need or any complaint by those served, show me the data.

HHS’s manipulation was not harmless. The new grants were to go only to programs that would be up and operating within ten days of the date of the awards. Instead, 450 enrolled victims of trafficking and their families were left without services when the new awardees were not ready to roll on time.

Abortion politics blinds some people. Now the proponents have gone so far that HHS will violate an executive order and gut a program that has successfully served thousands of vulnerable people. Someone needs to deal with this travesty. MRS and the American people have the right to demand: “Show me the data!”

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Life at the border: A bishop’s very real take on violence and immigration

It seems Lady Liberty is under serious stress these days. This American icon celebrated its 125th anniversary October 28, but as Robert Morgenthau’s same-day column in the New York Times pointed out, the inscription at its base no longer seems to ring true for a growing number of “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” In his article, Morgenthau decried current U.S. detention and removal policies as inhumane and ineffective.

The very same day, Washington Post editorialist Michael Gerson published a no-nonsense column unmasking Republican Party’s presidential candidates’ heated rhetoric on immigration as a dishonest strategy that doesn’t propose real solutions to an issue that requires serious attention. Further, he proposes this inflammatory approach might end up biting them back.

“What is it about the immigration issue that brings out the worst in politicians?” Gerson wonders. “It is the responsibility of political leaders to address this issue without inflaming it. The cynical accommodation of anger encourages serious division in a permanently diverse country. It is primarily the fault of politicians when the immigration debate turns ugly.” Amen to that.

Speaking of reality, historic levels of drug-related violence at the southern border don’t make the debate any easier— nor less urgent. Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownville, Texas, recently provided a poignant account of what life is like at the border these days.

In his moving keynote address (audio ) at the Immigration Symposium at the Mexican American Catholic College in San Antonio, Texas on Oct. 19, Bishop Flores pointed to new immigration patterns due to the growing violence and how that’s affecting life and relationships in those communities. The situation is far more complex than anyone not living there could imagine. Fear is the new driving factor for crossing the border—legally or illegally.

“The dominant fact is that the women and children are here. The men are often still in Mexico working to support them. They visit when they can. This is a new phenomenon, and not one that fits into the usual descriptions of immigration that we hear about on the news.”

Bishop Flores makes a first-person account of his encounters with immigrant families in several different categories, from the traditional poor seeking jobs, to Central Americans crossing Mexico on their way north, to middle class and wealthy business people seeking to shield their families from the violence.

“The new reality is rooted in what each of these families have in common: fear. They do not live in the Valley, or in Laredo, or in San Antonio primarily for economic reasons; rather, fear of kidnapping, random shootings, being caught at the wrong time in the wrong place, these are the pressures moving them. They are driven also by the fear that their children will grow up in, and know only, a lawless and cynical community if they remain at home.”

The economic and social impact of this new reality didn’t escape Bishop Flores’ analysis.

“If the middle class and the employer class are leaving because of violence, then we can expect the effects will be felt in an increase in poverty in Mexico. And this will surely put more pressure on immigration into the United States, only it will be doubly propelled by fear of violence and by poverty.”

He also spoke to the role of the Church in this discussion.

“We in the Church must do more to live up to our indispensable obligation to contribute to the discussion in a way that keeps it realistic and keeps it human,” Bishop Flores said. “There is a moral distinction we as a civilized people should maintain: someone who overstays a tourist visa out of fear for their life is not in the same category as someone who is running a prostitution ring in the Valley to support the drug trade.”

Bishop Flores expressed urgency in the need for immigration reform and for a coordinated response social, legal and pastoral to the difficult reality at the border.

“When it comes to the urgent need to craft a more just and reasonable immigration law in the United States, our attention should be focused on Congress and the President. But when it comes to how we work in our communities, it is in everyone’s interest that all the resources of the community, including the civil community, law enforcement and the Church marshal their resources together in an effort to push back the looming darkness that gathers south of us, and projects its shadows over us.”

A good summary of Bishop Flores’ recent presentation can be found in two different articles in The Valley Catholic.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

HHS Exec Rivals Nixon With Line: 'I am Not Trying to Get Anyone Off the Hook

The most memorable line since Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook” has just come out of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Ta da: “ I’m not trying to get anyone off the hook here.”

That telling quote comes from George Sheldon, acting assistant secretary for HHS’s Administration for Children and Families. Sheldon offered his defense to Washington Post writer Jerry Markon for a front page story in the Post November 1.

Markon’s story investigated how the grant process at HHS was manipulated to keep an office of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) from receiving an award to serve victims of human trafficking. USCCB’s Migration and Refugee Services (MRS) had scored high enough to be awarded a federal grant to continue its very successful anti-trafficking program. But the decision was “overturned,” so to speak, when Sharon Parrott, a top adviser to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, stepped in to “have a dialogue” (her words) in the process because the award would go through a Catholic agency. Their problem?: the Catholic Church—though providing food, shelter, and legal and other medical services for trafficking victims more effectively than any other—is forbidden by conscience from referring those victims for abortion, sterilization or contraceptives. So much for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and other federal legislation that protects conscience—not to mention ordinary fair-play in picking grant recipients.

According to the first version of Markon’s article, which appeared on the Washington Post website October 31, the decision caused controversy within HHS. The Post web article stated that “HHS policies spell out that career officials usually oversee grant competitions and select the winners, giving priority consideration the review board’s judgment. The policies do not prohibit political appointees from getting involved, through current and former employees said it is unusual, especially for high-level officials.”

Sheldon, who in the spirit of political loyalty apparently was willing to fall on his paperclip for higher-ups, told Markon: “I don’t think there was any undue influence exerted to make this grant go one way or the other.” He added, “Ultimately I felt it was my responsibility – and I’m not trying to get anyone off the hook here – to do what I thought was in the best interest of these victims.”

Surely Sharon Parrott, who according to the HHS Website is one of three counselors to Secretary Sebelius and advises on human services policy, and Secretary Sibelius herself, must be grateful for such fealty as they promote abortion politics over real care for trafficking victims. They opted for far weaker agencies, according to the grant scoring process, and awarded grants to USCRI and Tapestri, which “scored significantly below” MRS, the Post reported. And Sheldon wants us to believe this is “in the best interests of the victims”? Now that is loyalty!

Such political interference could irk career people at HHS who know what they are doing and want to avoid the political mire. Their concerns were reported to the Inspector General, according to the Post.

The original story on the web, which was later scrubbed of some quotes for whatever reason, was even more telling than what appeared in print.

Said the Washington Post original online version (still available on yahoo here):

“But some HHS staffers objected to the involvement of the secretary’s office, saying the goal was to exclude the Catholic bishops, individuals familiar with the matter said.

“It was so clearly and blatantly trying to come up with a certain outcome,” said one official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak to the media. “That’s very distasteful to people.”

To say the least. Unfairness is distasteful; re-victimizing trafficking victims is abhorrent.

One also wonders if it can be legal. Not that anyone’s trying to put anyone on the hook.