U.S.C.C.B. Agenda Takes Flight as Session Ends

The lame duck session of the 111th Congress was more fair than foul, at least as far as the 2010 domestic agenda of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is concerned. Kathy Saile, the U.S.C.C.B.’s director of domestic social development, said, “We’re batting a thousand” on the issues that the bishops have been supporting in recent months.

As the number of unemployed topped 15 million in November, an extension of unemployment benefits was a U.S.C.C.B. priority that appears to have survived high-level horse trading over the temporary continuation of Bush-era tax cuts. The deal brokered by President Obama and Republican leaders has infuriated some Democrats even as it protected a handful of U.S.C.C.B. policy goals, continuing child tax credits and expanding the reach of the Earned Income Tax Credit program. If the agreement is approved by Congress, E.I.T.C. will maintain its refundability to low-income earners who paid little or no federal taxes and it will keep a higher income threshold before it is phased out for married couples.

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On Dec. 2 Congress passed another piece of legislation supported by the conference, the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. The child nutrition bill expands school-lunch eligibility and better funds the program. It also sets new quality standards with an eye to combating the growing phenomenon of child obesity and encouraging America’s children to eat healthier food. Saile said passing the nutrition act had been of deep concern to the bishops since the school lunch is “for some kids their only meal of the day.”

Saile’s only reservation about the revised program concerns its “robbing Peter to pay Paul” funding scheme. Just under half of the money for the $4.5 billion program has been allocated from cuts in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly called food stamps). Saile called it a “terrible precedent” to fund one nutrition program by cuts in another. The SNAP cuts are not scheduled to take effect until 2014, and President Obama has assured House Democrats that by then SNAP money will be restored from a funding source to be named later.

The 111th Congress closes on Jan. 3, 2011, but some hope remains that it will address two other issues of keen interest to the bishops’ conference before it shuts its doors for the last time: passage of the Dream Act and approval of the New Start agreement to reduce nuclear arms in the Russian and U.S. arsenals. The Dream Act allows young people brought into the United States as children without documentation to continue their education after high school and eventually legalize their residency. On the revival of Start nuclear weapons reductions, Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany, chair of the bishops rsquo; Committee on International Justice and Peace, has twice in December exhorted Congress to approve the treaty. The pact, signed on April 8 by President Obama and President Dmitri A. Medvedev of Russia, reduces each nation’s stockpile of nuclear weapons to 1,500 strategic warheads. “I think it would be a grave mistake to miss this opportunity for our nation,” Bishop Hubbard said.

According to Saile, job creation and making moral sense out of the federal budget will be the major preoccupations of the bishops’ conference in the next Congress. “The budget is a moral document,” she said, “It shows what our priorities are and what we care about.” She said the U.S.C.C.B. will be keenly following budget discussions to see that the interests of the nation’s poor and vulnerable are not forgotten.

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