Call it Bush v. Murphy Brown: the rematch. After the spring of 1992, when Vice President Dan Quayle denounced CBS TV character Murphy Brown for bearing a child alone and calling it "just another lifestyle choice," the vice president's moralistic tone became grist for political humorists for years to come.
Now, a new Bush administration and GOP Congress are reengaging in the nation's culture war, once again focusing on the institution of marriage. But this time, they say, no one is laughing - evidence showing the benefits of marriage to children is more compelling than ever.
From a proposed constitutional amendment to outlaw same-sex marriage to new funding for programs to promote "healthy" marriage at the state level, Washington is making an unprecedented move into one of the most private and pivotal institutions in American life.
"In a remarkably short period of time, we have moved past the question of whether government ought to be involved in supporting healthy marriages to the ques- tion of how government should be involved," said Wade Horn, assistant Secretary for children and families in the Department of Health and Human Services, before a Senate panel last week.
So far, many of the new moves are modest - and in their infancy. But critics say that such programs could involve government in a relationship where it does not belong, and produce misguided policy, including encouraging women and children to stay in a possibly violent household.
New federal moves are wide-ranging. Among them: eliminating barriers to marriage - such as the permanent repeal of the so-called "marriage penalty" in the US tax code, which the House passed last week, and a pending rewrite of national welfare laws to provide $300 million in incentives for programs to promote "healthy" married families.
Meanwhile, several states have also launched a spate of new initiatives, with the most detailed legislation coming out of the conservative South and Southwest. Since the mid-1990s, all states have made at least one policy change to promote marriage or reduce divorce.
Forty now fund couples- and marriage-related services. And 36 have revised their welfare eligibility rules to include two- parent families. Nine states now offer bonuses for marriage.
"It is worth noting that there is little marriage-related policy activity in the northeastern states, and two of the three most populous states [California and New York] have no appreciable state marriage initiatives," according to a new report by the Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington.
In Senate hearings last week, lawmakers also discussed whether Washington should make it harder for couples to end a marriage, by challenging several states' "no-fault" divorce laws.
"Tell me the wisdom of a system where it is easier to get a marriage license than a hunting license, or where it is easier to get out of a marriage than a Tupperware contract," said former Gov. Frank Keating (R) of Oklahoma before a Senate panel on "Healthy Marriage" last week.
Oklahoma is one of seven states where government action addressing the institution of marriage is most pervasive. Others include Arizona, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, Utah, and Virginia, according to the CLSP study.
States are scrutinizing everything from the cost of a marriage license to incentives (or disincentives) for marriage built into state poverty programs. Florida has reduced marriage license fees for those who take a premarital education course. Arizona drafted a "marriage handbook," and funds marriage-skills courses for low-income couples. Michigan developed a family formation curriculum, tailored mainly at single mothers.
There is no data to demonstrate the effectiveness of such efforts. But supporters say the new infusion of federal money should help pilot projects produce positive results.
"We have a lot to learn about what works," says Sheri Steisel, federal affairs counsel at the National Conference of State Legislatures. "State lawmakers feel this is an important new direction to go in, but want to be very clear not to stigmatize single parents and to be very sensitive to the issue of domestic violence."
Many supporters admit that the complexity of the issue requires nuanced legislation.
"You've got to be so careful, because there are tons of single parents who are doing a fabulous job raising children, In many instances, they are doing a lot better than two parents who don't love each other," says Michigan Rep. Doug Hart (R), a sponsor of pro-marriage initiatives.
Still, groups ranging from the National Organization of Women and the libertarian Cato Institute question whether government belongs in the business of advising people on relationships as personal as marriage.
"This is one of the rare circumstances when you find Cato and NOW on the same page," says Michael Tanner, CATO director of health and welfare studies. "If the federal government can get involved in directing marriage, [are] there any limits to what government can get involved in?"
Critics caution that some of the legislation could have unintended, and dire, consequences. Course materials being developed in some states, they say, encourage women to accept the dominance of men in marriage - and even to stay in abusive relationships.
"Anything that makes it more difficult to get out of a marriage will make it more difficult for battered women to get out of a marriage," says Donna Coker, a law professor at the University of Miami.
Women advocates also say that the GOP's new focus on marriage may detract from the need for federal help to boost jobs and economic security for poor families.
"For political and ideological reasons, Republicans claim that what it takes to create a good home for children is marriage, when it's really economic and emotional stability," says Terry O'Neill, vice president of the National Organization of Women.