WASHINGTON — In the ugly budget battles beginning to unfold between President Bush and a Congress now led by Democrats, it is a piddling sum, barely worth mentioning. So no one does.

Not the White House, which claimed in vetoing the $150.7 billion spending bill for health, labor and education programs that it refuses to approve measures financing “duplicative or ineffective” programs. Not the Democrats, who harrumph that Bush continues to place blind faith and billions of taxpayer dollars in his own failed policies.

No one really wants to address the odd saga of how abstinence-only sex education programs, which have been shown by government and other studies to be wholly ineffective in changing sexual behavior among teenagers, are still getting federal money — more, in fact, than ever before. Those who tend to get mad about “runaway spending” for wasteful programs should be downright incensed.

Since 1996, federal allocations for abstinence-only sex education programs grew from $4 million to $176 million. In this year’s budget, Bush asked for a boost of $28 million, a sum congressional Democrats agreed to as a way to encourage Republicans to vote for the spending bill. “The abstinence money is very important to Republicans,” says a congressional aide when asked about the issue.

But not so important that enough Republicans will vote to override Bush’s veto of the larger spending measure that funds so many health and education programs dear to Democrats.

Whenever the budget impasse ends, abstinence-only programs are likely to get a total of $204 million. That’s about as much as the infamous and now-abandoned “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska, an excess considered so extreme that its exposure sparked a backlash against congressional earmarking. At least the bridge was meant to perform an easily identifiable function — it was to link one sparsely populated island town with an airport on a neighboring island.

Abstinence-only programs don’t even meet this thin test. “This is kids’ health and lives,” says James Wagoner of Advocates for Youth, an organization that promotes comprehensive sex education. Why are we more agitated over pork-barrel bridges than poor information that is getting drummed into impressionable young heads?

In 1997, Congress mandated an independent study of the effectiveness of abstinence-only sex education programs promoted by Republicans and religious conservatives as an alternative to sex education that includes information about birth control. The study concluded that they aren’t. Youths in these programs were no more likely than other teenagers to delay the start of sexual activity, or to have fewer sex partners.

More recently, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy reached the same conclusion. Abstinence-only programs, the campaign says in a new report, “did not delay the initiation of sex, increase the return to abstinence or decrease the number of sexual partners.” Nor did they make any difference in whether or not teenagers used condoms or other contraceptives. By contrast, two-thirds of the programs that included abstinence education along with instruction about contraceptives “had positive behavioral effects,” including delays in initiating sex, less frequent sex and a significant reduction in unprotected sex.

The documented failure of abstinence-only programs has prompted 14 states — including such conservative redoubts as Wyoming — to stop using state funds to match federal abstinence dollars. The latest is Virginia, where Gov. Timothy M. Kaine just eliminated about $275,000 the state was spending to match federal funds. The deletion was made as Kaine struggles to close a budget shortfall and asked his department heads to identify cuts to programs that aren’t “effective and efficient,” according to his communications director, Delacey Skinner. Health officials, she said, concluded that “this was not an evidence-based program.”

It is what it always has been: A faith-based boondoggle.

It also is a reliable stream of money to community activists, many of them with ties to conservative religious groups who run the programs for the federal government and turn out for Republicans on Election Day. Politically speaking, the generosity Bush and his fellow Republicans have shown to these groups is roughly akin to that of Democratic machine politicians of yore who gave out holiday turkeys to loyalists.

Of the deep disappointments the public has with this new Congress, wrangling over a few million tucked here or there into a huge budget bill is perhaps a petty annoyance. But one of the things Democrats vowed to do when they took over Capitol Hill was to end the triumph of ideology over evidence. So far they haven’t.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)washpost.com.

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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