As the Wall-Street-led, job-killing recession continues to claim victims, states and municipalities are attempting to balance their budgets on the backs of workers. No doubt, contracts drafted in more prosperous times that allowed civil servants to retire after 20 years and collect pensions and benefits for another 40 or 50 years are a burden and will need to be restructured. But ending the right of unions to collective bargaining is a nuclear option that will destroy an essential right and undercut chances for long-term prosperity.
Busting unions, however, is exactly what several governors, with Wisconsin’s Scott Walker in the lead, are trying to do. Beyond demands for sacrifices from state workers to balance budgets, Governor Walker has proposed ending the right of public employees’ unions to bargain collectively. Union members are ready to pay more toward health care and accept their fair share of budget cuts. But at a time of heightened inequality, curtailing an essential union right would be a crippling blow not only to labor but to the American middle class. After all, by establishing wage and benefit standards unions have helped establish standards not just for their members but for whole sectors of the economy.
Since the Reagan administration, the middle class has shared very little in the nation’s increased prosperity. The common good demands that burdens and benefits of public life be shared fairly. It is more than right that the businesses and individuals whose profits swelled during those lost years be required to pay higher taxes for the upkeep of the quality of American life and its future.
Signs of Something Greater
Something dramatic happened in St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral in Dublin in late February. As part of the Vatican’s investigation into the clerical abuse scandals in Ireland, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, O.F.M.Cap., archbishop of Boston, and Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin presided at a “Liturgy of Lament and Repentance,” intended to express the church’s sorrow and regret for the abuse of children by priests. Before the Mass both archbishops prostrated themselves before the altar in a penitential gesture that evoked the Good Friday liturgy. During the Mass they washed the feet of several victims of abuse, an action usually seen only on Holy Thursday.
In Catholic life symbols matter; they point to something greater than what can be grasped by the senses alone. Ashes are more than burnt matter; water is more than a liquid; a flame is more than fire. So as the church confronts the legacy of sexual abuse, symbolic gestures are needed. They can speak to the Catholic imagination as much as words do. Many people have waited a long time to see such public acts of contrition; and the archbishops’ gestures should be taken as a model for church leaders in the United States. But as both archbishops have indicated, symbols are not enough; for symbols to be made “real,” they must be matched by action. Archbishop Martin has worked diligently for change in his church and during the Mass thanked victims for not remaining silent. “I appeal to you to continue to speak out,” he said. “There is still a long path to journey in honesty before we can truly merit forgiveness.” Part of that journey will be listening, part of it symbolic actions; most of it will be real reform.
A Dirty Word
Of all the dirty words tossed around Washington these days perhaps none is said with more distaste than earmarks. President Obama, in his recent State of the Union address, vowed to veto any bill with earmarks, and now both houses of Congress have approved a two-year ban. Earmarks have become synonymous with pork-barrel spending, because the money is often directed to Congressional districts sub rosa, without an opportunity for public review.
The system is flawed, to be sure, and introducing more transparency would help put an end to federally funded boondoggles. (See “Nowhere, Bridge to.”) Yet should earmarks ultimately be eliminated altogether? Earmarks have played a crucial role in buoying local economies. Without them, for example, Hawaii would lag far behind other states on a range of economic indicators. Louisiana, too, benefited from federal earmarks in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. In other parts of the country, earmarks have built roads and hospitals. And they have created jobs, no small matter in the current economic climate.
Problems do exist: the House Appropriations Committee, for example, has historically exercised far too much control over where federal monies are spent. Yet one of Congress’s key roles is to appropriate money: the Constitution says so. A reform of the earmark system, rather than its complete abolition, seems the wiser route—a process already begun by Congressional Democrats before they reluctantly agreed to the ban. When the subject comes up again for debate, supporters might point to two high-profile initiatives that began as earmarks: the Human Genome Project and the nutrition program known as WIC.