Fallout from the partial government shutdown in October and another looming round of automatic spending cuts in January kept congressional leaders busy at year’s end, finalizing a budget deal Republicans and Democrats could live with. By Dec. 18 they succeeded, passing a bipartisan budget deal in both the House and Senate. Through a tumultuous 2013, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and other Catholic advocates, including Catholic Charities USA, had pressed for a budget that does not adversely affect poor people.
The bishops and other advocates hoped to throw a “circle of protection” around programs like poverty-focused international assistance, affordable housing and community development, education, Head Start, workforce development and emergency unemployment compensation. The budget deal, announced by Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington, and Representative Paul D. Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin, chairs of the Senate and House budget committees respectively, caps spending at slightly more than $1 trillion in each of the next two years. Though it succeeds in turning back a looming automatic cut to social spending, the agreement will actually mean reductions in social service discretionary spending when inflation and population growth are factored in, as soon as 2015.
The deal signaled at least a temporary truce on the budget between Democrats and Republicans. Under the agreement, $63 billion in a second round of the sequester, across-the-board spending cuts in military and non-military programs, set for mid-January would be avoided.
Representatives affiliated with the Tea Party movement had opposed any deal that increased government spending, leaving House Speaker John A. Boehner, Republican of Ohio, to rally moderate Republicans to join Democrats in supporting a budget bill. The final budget bill measure does not extend unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed, which expired on Dec. 28.
Commenting on the deal in a statement, Network, a Catholic social justice lobby, said: “Although we are relieved that domestic needs programs are not being cut at levels previously proposed by Republican legislators, we continue to believe that military spending [$520.5 billion in 2014] should be cut further, which would allow more funding for [underfunded] human needs programs…. We are also deeply unhappy that the agreement did not include extension of long-term unemployment benefits for 1.3 million people.” Network called on Congress to pass an extension of those emergency federal unemployment benefits “for American workers still suffering the effects of the economic recession.... Our workers need it and so does our economy.”
In a statement on Dec. 13, Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of Miami, the new chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, commended Ryan and Murray for embracing civil dialogue and setting aside partisanship in crafting a modest replacement to sequestration. “Millions of working families across the country and around the world struggle to survive and achieve stability. While this agreement is an important first step to accomplishing that, more needs to be done,” the archbishop said. “Congress and the administration still face serious and consequential decisions regarding appropriations for fiscal year 2014.”
Archbishop Wenski urged “wise bipartisan leadership in targeting this limited sequestration relief by drawing a circle of protection around programs that protect poor and vulnerable people at home and abroad, advance the common good, and promote human life and dignity.”