Congress Moves on Charity, Gears for Welfare Debate

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The Senate Finance Committee last month approved a scaled-down version of legislation to provide incentives to increase charitable giving. The measure includes tax provisions but avoids the thornier issues of increasing involvement of faith-based organizations in government-funded social programs.

Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and ranking minority member Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) drafted a bipartisan bill based largely on a similar proposal sponsored by Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.). The House passed its expanded “Charitable Choice” bill (HR 7) 233-198 last July.

Charitable and nonprofit organizations could see a boom in donations, both financial and material, if the bill has the effect envisioned by supporters. The legislation would allow owners of individual retirement accounts to roll the money over to a charity without paying taxes; allow deductions for taxpayers who donate to charities but do not itemize their returns; increase tax incentives to encourage the donation of books to libraries and literacy programs; enhance deductions for food contributions to food banks; and waive capital gains taxes for property sold to nonprofit organizations for conservation uses.

It also would establish individual development accounts, which would give tax incentives to banks that match the savings of qualified account holders. Banks would match up to $500 a year in savings, for up to five years. The money could be used to buy a first home, start a business or pay for higher education.

Overall, the tax provisions in the bill would cost an estimated $8.5 billion over a decade. The House bill is estimated to cost $13 billion.

The Senate committee approved the bill by voice vote June 18, sending it to the Senate floor for consideration.

The Finance Committee also has jurisdiction over reauthorizing the nation’s welfare laws, or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). The House passed its version (HR 4737) 229-197 in May. The Senate committee was contemplating a markup in late June.

Democrats plan to make numerous changes in the House-passed welfare reauthorization bill. A group of 18 Democratic senators, led by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.), have said their priorities include increased funding for numerous programs, such as child care. The House bill would increase the current $4.8 billion by $2 billion over five years. Kennedy and his supporters proposed an increase of $11.25 billion over five years; another group of senators proposed an $8 billion increase.

The Kennedy coalition also wants work-study, GED, literacy and other educational programs to count toward the work requirements for welfare. And while the House bill mandates that states require more welfare recipients to work 40 hours a week, Senate Democrats are expected to retain the current 30-hour work week.

Several Bush administration priorities are likely to come under attack in the Democrat-controlled Senate. The House bill includes $100 million annually for five years to promote marriage, and another $50 million annually for state programs to promote abstinence-only sex education. Neither proposal has much support from Democrats.

“To me, like most Montanans, marriage is a personal and private choice,” Baucus said at a hearing. “It’s not something the government should interfere with.”

In other youth-related issues:

• The Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation (S 1868) that would establish a national center to provide free criminal background checks to nonprofits before they hire someone to work with children, the elderly or the disabled. The bill moves to the full Senate for consideration.

• Child health advocates are generally pleased with youth-related provisions of the bioterrorism bill Bush signed into law June 12 (PL 107-188). Among other provisions, the act will: establish a national advisory committee to ensure the health needs of children are met; require that the nation’s stockpile of medical supplies and vaccines meet children’s needs; include children’s hospitals in preparedness efforts; and establish a pediatrics training program for all health-care personnel.

• Members of a House-Senate conference committee were appointed in mid-June to work out differences on the “wartime” supplemental appropriations bill (HR 4775). The final version is expected to include several youth-related provisions, including $1 billion for Pell Grants; $75 million for the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program; $500,000 for the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act; and $2 million for a decontamination facility for children and families at the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington.

• The House passed legislation (HR 4800) in June that would make the $10,000 adoption tax credit permanent. The credit was scheduled to return to $5,000 in 2011.

• Four more House members, for a total of 26, agreed to co-sponsor legislation (HR 2487) that would award $5,000 scholarships to low- and moderate-income youth who perform at least 300 hours of community service a year. The sponsors were added after a lobbying push by youths organized by the National People’s Action, a Chicago-based neighborhood advocacy group. The legislation was written by a committee of youth.