Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Arlen Specter Adds Earmarks For Abstinence Education

At the Baltimore Sun, Josh Drobnyk writes:

Sen. Arlen Specter added more than two dozen spending requests for abstinence education programs in Pennsylvania to a bill that passed a Senate committee this summer, the latest effort by the Pennsylvania Republican to boost federal spending on such programs, as I write in today's Allentown Morning Call.

The more than $1 million -- to be doled out in 25 grants each worth between $30,000 and $80,000 -- would go to hospitals, school districts and social service organizations throughout the state and supplement a growing federal effort to persuade unmarried people to abstain from sex. But critics say the requests bypass the government's competitive bidding process.

Specter, who added the ''earmarks'' to the Labor and Health and Human Services appropriations measure that passed the panel in June, is the only lawmaker in Congress to sponsor a spending request for abstinence education, according to a database of appropriations bills compiled by Washington-based watchdog Taxpayers for Common Sense. The bill still needs Senate, House and White House approval.

Specter's support for abstinence education is a long-held but lesser-known position of the five-term lawmaker, a move that could soften his image among moral conservatives as an abortion-rights supporter.

He has pushed for more federal money toward abstinence programs since at least the mid-1990s, but not until a few years ago did he add a spending request directly into an appropriations bill, requiring the Department of Health and Human Services to fund a project.

In 2003 and 2004, he added about 65 earmarks for abstinence education totaling $5.6 million into appropriations measures, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Unlike past years, though, when earmark sponsors were determined mainly through piecing together news releases and line items within spending bills, this year's appropriations measures highlight exactly who has sponsored each request. They offer the first comprehensive glimpse of Specter's support for specific abstinence programs.

''Sen. Specter recognizes the need for comprehensive sex education,'' Specter chief of staff Scott Hoeflich said in an e-mail. ''Thus, he supports funding for abstinence-only education programs in response to a significant segment of his constituency which he believes is entitled to implement programs most consistent with their values.''

The year's requests are sprinkled throughout the state. Among them: $55,000 for LaSalle University in Philadelphia, $30,000 for Shepherd's Maternity House in East Stroudsburg and $45,000 for Washington Hospital Teen Outreach in Washington County.

One such program, Human Life Services in York, has twice before received grants earmarked by Specter. Executive Director Ron Sisto said the organization's abstinence program gives seminars at hundreds of schools every year. ''We explain to them that to have the healthiest lifestyle is to remain abstinent until marriage,'' Sisto said. That involves teaching about sexually transmitted diseases but not contraception.

This year's Pennsylvania earmarks would add to federally funded abstinence programs that have more than doubled in total dollars since 2000 to $213 million this year, all administered by Health and Human Services. Most of the money is through the Community-Based Abstinence Education program, which began in 2000 and awards grants directly to states and local organizations.

The earmarks touch on two raging debates on Capitol Hill: Whether the programs funded are properly vetted and whether abstinence education is effective. ''It is not necessarily that there is anything wrong with the program,'' said Ryan Alexander, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. ''We don't have the evidence to support the fact that this is a federal priority. We don't know what they are saying no to.''

Added Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association, which lobbies for more federal money for the effort: ''It is really a little more difficult [to know] that the funds are being used as they are intended to when they don't have the oversight of HHS.''

But Specter's office said each application goes through a competitive process that is ''thoroughly reviewed'' by the senator's office -- not normal channels through the Department of Health and Human Services. Once funded, the project is held accountable by the department like any government-funded project.

Whether or not the programs are effective is a different question. Supporters and opponents point to varying evidence that backs their position.

''There has never been any research that showed these programs were effective,'' said Martha Kempner, spokeswoman for Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. She noted that a federally funded study released early this year showed abstinence education is not effective in delaying sexual activity among unmarried youth.

Huber, though, said dozens of other studies show positive effects. ''It is effective in delaying sexual onset,'' she said.