Rumors of a budget deal scattered about Washington today only to be denied by officials from the Obama administration and Speaker of the House John Boehner’s office—just the latest development in the high-stakes “don’t call my bluff” poker game that has transfixed the nation. Trial ballooned packages that would allow an increase to the nation’s$14 trillion debt ceiling as part of a comprehensive plan to address the nation’s mounting debt crowd the capital’s skyline. “What me worry” tea partiers downplay the dangers of a default, demanding massive government spending cuts and a constitutional balanced budget amendment before they will even consider raising the nation’s debt ceiling by the August 2 deadline. Meanwhile a presumably moderate plan has emerged from the congressional “Gang of Six,” even as dead-enders in the Republican party court an unprecedented sovereign debt default.
There has been much talk about protecting “job creators” and saving the middle class, but very little has been heard about how the nation’s growing population of poor and unemployed will fare by the end of the budget negotiations. “Washington is talking about almost everything except about how these decisions will affect the poor,” said John Carr, the Executive Director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Department of Justice, Peace, and Human Development.
An unusual coalition of leaders from most of the nation’s major Christian denominations met with President Obama yesterday to return some visibility to the plight of the nation’s poor and vulnerable as the budget talks drag on. In an effort to protect social services and foreign aid programs they argue should be non-negotiables, the members of the “Circle of Protection” have for weeks highlighted the likely real world collateral damage of the democratic/republican budget wars.
A delegation from the group went to the White House Wednesday afternoon where they petitioned the president to remember the poor and joined him in prayer. According to one member of the delegation, the president seemed moved by the experience and deeply concerned about some of the potential hardships that could emerge in a budget deal. He was specifically concerned about the impact on Medicaid and foreign aid programs. One pastor who attended the meeting said the president assured the group that he would remember “the least of these” as negotiations continue, in an apparent reference to Matthew 25.
After the White House meeting, Galen Carey, vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals said, “We clearly understood from the president’s remarks he is aware of these issues and is concerned with the outcome on the poor.” He said, “Our challenge to him was to use his rhetorical gifts to explain to Americans why it was so important … that we protect poor people as we get our fiscal house in order.”
Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner, Co-facilitator of National African American Clergy Network, said she has never before participated in such a diverse and broad coalition. “That fact was not lost on the president or his team,” she said.
Bishop Ricardo Ramirez of La Cruces, New Mexico, a member of the U.S.C.C.B. Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, told the president that the bishops’ conference met with him “not to advance any particular plan, but to focus on the final moral principal that we should place the poor first in allocation of our nation’s scarce financial resources.”
Bishop Ramirez said, “We’re not interested in which party wins the current political battles. We are worried about who are likely to lose …. the hungry, the sick and the hopeless, not only in our country but around the world.”
Ramirez added that there were many “givens” in the current discussion. Republicans say no new taxes are their given; democrats aim to protect the middle class. “Sadly, if you listen to the debate, protecting the poor and vulnerable is not a given,” the bishop said. “They have no powerful lobbyists, but they do have a powerful moral claim. . . I told [President Obama] that [recognizing this claim] will be the fundamental moral measure of this process, his administration and our nation.”
One time Congressman and U.N. Ambassador Tony Hall said he was very worried that humanitarian aid programs have been targeted by budget hawks. “These kinds of program are in serious jeopardy,” he said. “Members of Congress can write them off, and they won’t suffer when it comes to election time. That will cost lives there’s no question about it.” What cutting humanitarian assistance programs won’t do, he said, was save a lot of money. Even as Hall spoke the United Nations was officially declaring a famine in two regions of Somalia and issuing an appeal for emergency aid.
“These programs save lives,” Hall said.
Other members of the delegation said they were likewise concerned about possible cuts to domestic programs such as nutrition supports, retraining for the unemployed and above all health care to the poor. But has their appeal been issued too late in the process? Sojourner’s Jim Wallis didn’t think so. “This [negotiation] is a moving target,” he said. In the past, Wallis said, means-tested programs have been protected from budget cuts. He thinks the same could still be true today. “Sometimes we have reduced poverty and the deficit at the same time,” Wallis added.
The U.S.C.C.B.’s Carr said the members of the Circle of Protection would continue to press members of Congress and the administration to remember the demands of scripture and the nation’s and world’s poor and vulnerable people. He said the group has already met with G.O.P. budget maven Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan. He described the confidential discussion as “substantial and constructive.”
“We made the same case with him as we made with the president,” said Carr, who said he was “very encouraged” by the meeting with Ryan. The coalition also hopes to me with Speaker Boehner and Senate Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
Members of the delegation said they remain hopeful that, despite the large figures in references to budget cuts being discussed, critical programs for the poor could be preserved. It all comes down to what is being cut, said Carey. “When we talk about cuts in Medicaid, that could mean reduction in payments to hospitals or people taken off the rolls altogether.” Likewise budget adjustments in agriculture could be made to cut subsidies to “rich farmers” or food stamps for the hungry. Bread for the World President the Rev. David Beckmann said, “Changing Congress depends on us all of us reaching out to congregations and parishes and Christian people [and to other faith traditions]. The members of Congress need to hear from us; they need to hear from home that there are people praying for the poor who want Congress to protect the poor.”
He said, “If we could get 10 percent of churchgoers to call Congress, the poor would not be at risk.”