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Madam Secretary’s Stealth Assault on Liberty


Elections matter, as anyone watching the full House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing on the politicization of grants late last week was reminded.

For over three hours, two Department of Health and Human Services officials made clear that if you apply for a federal grant to help foreign victims of sex trafficking, you had better be willing to embrace the “fully array” of “reproductive health” options.

For the past five years, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has been the administrator of a contract managing the cases of foreign victims of sex trafficking. This summer, the funding was cut because of a change in preference at HHS, despite the USSCB program scoring well in a competitive process.

The hearing was called after reporting by the Washington Post revealed that senior political appointees may have made the final call, over the objections of professional staff.  Further investigation by House Oversight staff has found that, as chairman Darrell Issa (R., Calif.) described it, “the most experienced and top rated national applicant was not selected, and lower-ranked organizations were somehow funded. The process was delayed for months while the agency struggled to find ways to inject new criteria into the process, and — of great concern — the judgment of experienced, career-level professionals was discarded when political appointees chose to overrule transparent decision-making.”

Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius has not responded to requests by Issa and other members of both the House and Senate to provide further relevant details. Based on the hearing Thursday, her answer would probably be confirmation that, in fact, this administration considers these services to be basic medical care and a mandated service to be actively promoted by anyone contracting with the federal government. Majority members sought a clear answer to the question: Why was the fourth of three equal applications rejected? Because the secretary’s office shot it down, appears to be the answer, based on one HHS official’s testimony.

In other words, as some have put it, “Catholics Need Not Apply” for these and perhaps other grants. And not only Catholics, but other faith-based non-profits with conscience objections to certain services, such as the Salvation Army. 

“If we’re writing grant proposals to specifically exclude Catholic charities, it’s a new day,” Oklahoma freshman congressman James Lankford told me last week. Classmate Ann Marie Buerkle, a nurse from New York, said: “It appears that under this administration it is no longer business as usual. The politicization of the grant process puts the integrity of U.S. outreach efforts into question and has instead elevated the priority of partisanship over the needs of those victims of human trafficking and purposefully at the expense of an organization capable of meeting those needs.”

And there’s another question that should come up more explicitly in a second round of hearings: While this administration has decided that the best way to help these victims is to provide them with abortion and contraception services, is that really the case? Surely this is a question that should be asked and debated out in the open: how best to serve these victims. It’s questionable at best that decreasing the pool of competent partners will be a healthy strategy. Steven Wagner, who was a director of the human-trafficking program at HHS during the Bush administration and continues to work with human-trafficking victims at his Renewal Forum, including domestically, has raised them and would be an instructive witness.

Chairman Issa deserves credit for shining oversight light on this issue of both religious liberty and fiscal stewardship. The same cannot be said for the lack of transparency of this administration and its HHS secretary.


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