President Trump’s federal blueprint for fiscal year 2019 did not receive good reviews from church leaders after its release on Feb. 12. The U.S. bishops issued a response the following morning, expressing deep concerns about many of the priorities suggested by the administration’s funding choices. They urged Congress to evaluate the president’s budget “in light of its impacts on those most in need.”
The bishops urged national legislators to ensure that the budget that eventually emerges “honors our obligations to build toward the common good.”
Speaking on behalf of the conference, the Most Rev. Timothy P. Broglio, archbishop for the Military Services, USA, and chair of the Committee on International Justice and Peace, and the Most Rev. Frank J. Dewane, bishop of Venice, Fla., and chair of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, said that the president’s plan “again calls for deep cuts to vital parts of government, including underfunding programs that serve the poor, diplomacy and environmental stewardship.”
At the same time, the budget proposal calls for increases in immigration enforcement and further hikes in military spending, including on nuclear weapons. The bishops said: “Budget decisions ought to be guided by moral criteria that safeguard human life and dignity, give central importance to ‘the least of these,’ and promote the well-being of workers and families who struggle to live in dignity. Our nation must never seek to balance the budget on the backs of the poor at home and abroad.”
To the consternation of humanitarian, health and civic activists, the budget proposal includes deep cuts or restructuring of international aid and social service programs.
The U.S. bishops did endorse proposals that prohibit “certain abortion providers” from receiving federal funds and commended the allocation of increased resources to combat the nationwide opioid addiction and overdose crisis.
The president’s February fiscal request is the first step in the annual budget-setting process. House and Senate budget committees will be detailing their own versions of the approximately $4.4 trillion budget by May. The fiscal year begins on Oct. 1.
The Trump administration budget request includes $716 billion for defense spending; $45 billion more for infrastructure; $18 billion for border security, including $1.6 billion for the president’s long-promised border wall; and $13 billion in new spending to respond to the opioid epidemic.
To the consternation of humanitarian, health and civic activists, the budget proposal includes deep cuts or restructuring of international aid and social service programs. It proposes major changes to the popular Medicare prescription drug program and includes cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency; housing, heating and income assistance programs; and Medicaid.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program would be reduced by more than $213 billion over the next 10 years—nearly 30 percent. According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, the president’s plan for S.N.A.P., which supports more than 43.6 million Americans, “calls for radically restructuring the delivery of benefits, which would cut benefits for the overwhelming majority of households, and other benefit and eligibility changes that would leave at least 4 million people losing S.N.A.P. benefits altogether.”
The president’s annual budget request is a more or less symbolic outline of possible spending and rarely reflects actual fiscal disbursements. This year that will be especially true, Washington observers point out, because of a recent congressional deal on spending for the next two years that includes substantial increases for defense and social services.
Those hikes, coupled with significant tax cuts recently approved by Congress, mean the proposed 2019 budget includes a $984 billion deficit and comparable shortfalls extending across the next decade. The Obama administration inherited a $1.4 trillion deficit as the economy lurched during the Great Recession, but President Obama had reduced the recurring deficit to $438 billion by the time he left office. The current national debt is more than $20.6 trillion.
Officials at Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. church’s humanitarian relief and development agency, were alarmed by the president’s proposals for reductions at the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development. The administration’s request proposes a more than one-third reduction in funding for those diplomatic and foreign aid efforts and completely eliminates international food assistance.
“The United States is a generous nation that has led the global community in responding to catastrophe and providing opportunity to the poor and the marginalized,” Bill O’Keefe, C.R.S. vice president for government relations and advocacy, said in a statement. “But even beyond the fundamental humanitarian and moral imperative to fund foreign aid, poverty-reducing international assistance is in the best interest of our country,” he said. “Deep and disproportionate cuts to development aid and diplomacy will only exacerbate the problems we face today and leave a vacuum for new crises to fester tomorrow.”
According to a C.R.S. statement, the budget proposal significantly underfunds the nation’s humanitarian response capacity, which would have “life or death consequences for millions of people” if approved by Congress. In fiscal year 2017, the United States spent over $2.5 billion more on humanitarian response than what is currently allocated for 2019, according to C.R.S., “at a time when the UN predicts a 5 percent increase in humanitarian need.”
The agency reports that globally, more than 136 million people need humanitarian assistance, including 700,000 people who have fled Myanmar for Bangladesh since August of 2017.
“Humanitarian assistance provides life-saving aid; we cannot cut now, when 30 million people face famine,” said Mr. O’Keefe.
Leaders at Jesuit Refugee Service were troubled that the budget request includes a 30 percent cut to humanitarian aid. They say that would have a significant impact on the more than 65.6 million refugees and other forcibly displaced persons around the world. They worried that the blueprint indicates the president’s desire for deeper reductions in the number of refugees resettled in the United States.
“We are deeply troubled that the Trump Administration continues to assert a lack of leadership and compassion for our sisters and brothers around the world,” Giulia McPherson, JRS/USA interim executive director, said in a statement. “We see the effects of war, persecution and trauma on individuals and families as well as the hope, security, and stability that programs like those funded by the U.S. government bring as refugees recover and rebuild their lives.”
The world is grappling with a historic level of displaced people driven from their homes by conflict, crime, ethnic cleansing and poverty in Asia, Latin America and Africa. “Now, more than ever, the U.S. must demonstrate leadership by helping to provide food, shelter, and education to those who need it most,” J.R.S. officials said.
Instead, the proposed budget slashes already underfunded programs that assist refugees at home and abroad, “some of which have a particular impact on displaced children.”