Bureaucrat appears wedded to marriage education effort


WADE HORN, President Bush's marriage promoter, doesn't just want regular Americans to tie the knot and stick with it. He wants the federal workers who serve those Americans to live happily ever after, too.

Horn, assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services' Administration for Children and Families, is expanding a marriage education pilot program to 10 of the department's regional offices after employees at its Washington headquarters participated last year.

The program, which teaches problem-solving and communications skills in a style similar to a driver safety course, consists of voluntary, multihour evening or weekend seminars. Sixty-eight federal workers enrolled in the program during the 2004 fiscal year, and 80 have done so this year, Horn said.

The course is taught using the PREP (Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program) curriculum, whose principle author is a University of Denver psychology professor.

"We're pretty convinced that children do best when their parents are in a healthy, stable relationship, and when that falls apart the government, especially the courts, picks up the tab," said Theodora Ooms, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy.

"When the idea of marriage education first started, a lot of people were afraid because the people promoting it were religious, evangelical conservatives. But in looking at these government programs, we've found that in general they are very secular, very gender-neutral and pretty egalitarian."

Critics, however, have questioned whether the government should be in the business of promoting marriage - particularly a middle-class, Judeo-Christian view of it. Avis DeWeever, of the Institute for Women's Policy Research, said that people who don't marry tend to be younger, have higher rates of unemployment and earn less.

"One of the greatest predictors of marriage is holding a good, stable job," DeWeever said. "It makes much more sense to increase someone's marriageability by helping them get a quality education and a good job with high wages and benefits.

"Marriage classes have historically targeted middle-income white couples and endorse an idea of what the idyllic family should be like, but it's an ideal that's impossible for many families."

Horn argues that the program is an important component of being a responsible employer - workers with problematic marriages tend to be absent more often and less productive.

"Employee assistance programs, including the government's, offer programs that help people with substance abuse, depression, divorce and family-work balance, so why not marriage?" Horn said.

A spokesman for the Administration for Children and Families said that the program is being offered at minimal cost - mostly copying charges - and has not required additional staff.

Horn said he would like to see the program expanded to other divisions in the Department of Health and Human Services. He hopes that eventually other federal agencies will want to duplicate the program.

"A lot of the programs that I fund are driven by either family dysfunction or family breakup," Horn said. "I'd like to see us have to spend less on child support enforcement and focus more of our energy on prevention."

VA funding

In May, Federal Workers wrote about how the agency responsible for caring for Maryland's veterans was facing a projected $16 million statewide shortfall this year while repeated Democratic attempts to gain relief were failing in Congress because Veterans Affairs Secretary James Nicholson said that the help was not needed.

Well, this week, Nicholson said that although accounting maneuvers could cover a just-announced $1 billion shortfall in VA operating funds this year, the agency faced a $2.6 billion crisis next year unless Congress gives it more money - about $1.5 billion more.

Nicholson told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee that the agency based its anticipated 2005 caseload on 2002 numbers that did not take wars in Iraq and Afghanistan into account, according to published testimony. Nicholson also said the severity of the problem was not caught until staff members completed a mid-year review last month.

"Our impression was that this was either deliberate misrepresentation or gross incompetence," said Alex Glass, a spokeswoman for Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington state Democrat. "The senator reviewed the numbers months ago and could see that they were going to be short. Our local VA networks [in Washington state] are facing an $11 million shortfall, and they've been saying that for a long time."

Now, Republicans and Democrats are mobilizing to fix the the problem. Murray introduced legislation calling for $1.42 billion in emergency money. Senate Republicans have countered with an extra $1.5 billion and railed on Nicholson for either not catching the shortfall earlier or sitting on it while they tossed out amendments that would have increased funding.

If either proposal passes, it is unclear whether local cuts already under way, including greater use of generic drugs, reducing 30 staff positions through attrition and suppressing overtime, would be reversed.

"We have not been given any additional guidance at this point," regional VA spokeswoman Adrien Creecy-Starks said. "We are going to do what we can to take care of veterans and are working with our partners in Congress to provide world-class service."

BRAC hearings

Members of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission will visit Baltimore and Washington next week to hear arguments for and against transferring more than 6,000 Department of Defense jobs to Maryland while draining jobs from the nation's capital.

The Washington hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m. Thursday in the Ronald Reagan Building, 1300 Pennsylvania Ave. The nearest Metro stop is Federal Triangle on the Orange and Blue lines.

Members of the commission will visit Baltimore the next day and listen to representatives from Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey.

The Baltimore hearing is to begin at 8:30 a.m. at Goucher College's Kraushaar Auditorium, 1021 Dulaney Valley Road. Maryland will have the attention of four of the BRAC's nine members for the first hour only.

The writer welcomes your comments and story tips. She can be reached at melissa.harris@baltsun.com or 410-715- 2885. Back issues can be accessed at www.baltimore sun.com/federal.

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