The upcoming battle over the 2012 budget may prove to be one of the most important legislative debates of the new century. A vast economic engine is set in motion each year with the Congressional approval of each annual budget. But the 2012 budget promises to reshape the United States and redefine the nation’s place in the world for decades to come.
As the nation’s political discourse becomes increasingly theatrical and incoherent, the bishops, along with other leaders and sectors of the church, need to speak with clarity about the budget as a moral document. After years of ignoring a national debt that has mounted dramatically since the last time a federal budget managed to produce a surplus, under President Bill Clinton, a bipartisan chorus in Washington has abruptly awakened to the reality of the nation’s crushing $14.3 trillion debt. Interest on the total federal debt is now one of the largest items on the budget each year, and deficit control has become the de facto priority in Washington.
Whether addressing the debt now is the best short-term way forward as the nation struggles to shake off the lingering effects of its deep recession apparently has become beside the point. Since deficit containment has become the primary goal this year, American Catholics must insist that the budget be balanced with attention to the many acute domestic and international needs that simply cannot be sacrificed to cost-cutting. That is especially true when many in Washington, in an unwelcome resurrection of supply-side economics, insist that tax reduction and the continuation of unconscionably high levels of defense spending are “non-negotiables.” It should be the Catholic position that there are indeed non-negotiable items within the budget, but money for defense and tax cuts for the wealthy are not among them.
Indeed, in his recent address President Obama has insisted that he will not approve a budget that continues Bush-era tax reductions that have contributed so grievously to the current fiscal crisis. The church must not cross this crucial line in the sand. No just deficit-management program can proceed over the next decade or more without raising taxes on those upper-income citizens who have benefited so mightily from the last decade’s tax cuts and economic realignments. The church needs to stake this position out now before the budget debate begins.
Many high-powered lobbyists will flood Washington in May. But when the red pencils come out, who will speak for the poor? The U.S. bishops have been among the few consistent voices in defense of the needs of the most vulnerable. That voice needs to be loud and persistent as budget allocations are hammered out and budgetary trial balloons are floated by both parties. Representative Paul Ryan’s proposal to convert Medicare and Medicaid into yet another free-market enterprise is wrongheaded. This would amount to federal welfare for the shareholders and chief executives of the nation’s for-profit insurance companies. Ryan’s proposal essentially assures millions more Americans that they will one day be cut off from affordable health care or impoverished trying to secure it. All sectors of the church need to speak up repeatedly and with clarity on the moral limits of further health care reductions before dialogue hardens into ideological concrete.
Bishops have shown no reluctance to speak authoritatively on issues of abortion and same-sex marriage. Bishops and the whole Catholic community must speak with the same clarity and vigor about the budget and the direction it sets for the nation. The budget is an urgent moral matter that demands a consistent, unified message. Its line items are more than just quotidian allotments of monies; they are moral choices: whether to honor the nation’s commitment to the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals or concoct another tax break for the wealthy; whether to protect the human dignity of our elderly and poor by ensuring they can rely on adequate health care or continue an extravagant expansion of military spending.
The upcoming struggle will be a matter of life and death. Will faltering education systems and deteriorating infrastructure go unaddressed for another decade? Will more Americans fall out of the middle class as health care reform falters? Will the nation’s public aid recipients, mostly women and children, discover their already tenuous support systems in nutritional aid, children’s health insurance programs and Medicaid compressed further to make way for “tax relief” for corporations and the inhabitants of upper income brackets?
All sectors of the church can help frame this debate. Absent the church, the debate will be framed by ideologically tainted “research” emerging from the media and Washington think-tanks. The church says the budget is a moral document; it should speak about it with the urgency that claim demands.