The budget battle's narrow terms

March 31, 2011

It's great to see David Beckmann convince Mark Bittman to join the fast against attempts to cut federal programs that help the poor and the hungry. Bittman's dismissal of the religious element of the effort by Bread for the World and others--"I doubt God will intervene here"--betrays his unfamiliarity with Christian thought. (I'm tempted to send him one of my ELCA "God's work, our hands" fridge magnets.) But thanks to Bittman's involvement, now even the Nation is giving the progressive evangelical effort positive coverage.

I'm ambivalent about using the prophets to (somewhat awkwardly) prooftext a publicity stunt. It raises complicated questions about the relationship between a spiritual fast and a political hunger strike. But right now those questions seem a lot less important than the fact that apparently the only way to evade a government shutdown--not such a great thing, though there are worse things--is for the Democrats to give the Republicans what they want: major cuts to non-defense discretionary spending. That would be devastating for a lot of vulnerable people.

There's nothing like a divided-government budget fight to highlight the insanity of U.S. politics. In a time of tenuous economic recovery, we should be having a serious debate about our complicated policy options. Do we need more stimulus before we turn to the deficit problem? If not, should we tackle the deficit by cutting spending, raising taxes or some combination? If we go with just cuts, which parts of the budget should they come from?

Each of these is a serious and difficult question. But the national debate has largely glossed over them, skipping ahead to a focus on cuts to non-defense discretionary spending--the relatively small slice of the budget pie that happens to include lots of programs aimed at mitigating slightly the staggering gap (pdf) between the haves and have-nots. It's a conversation with narrow parameters: should we make deep cuts to this spending? Or should we make even deeper ones?

The White House recently floated an offer consisting of more than $30 billion in total cuts. That's the amount the Republican leadership proposed as its opening bid, but a couple months later they wouldn't even take it as a compromise--because the White House offer consisted only mostly, instead of entirely, of cuts to discretionary spending. It's easy to forget that the Democrats control two of the three bodies of government involved here.

A sane national politics wouldn't pivot on a conversation that's ostensibly about the deficit but is limited to cuts to relatively small programs. It wouldn't take seriously the idea that you can somehow counteract the deficit by neutering a health-care reform law that actually saves the government money. It wouldn't make farm subsidies sacrosanct.

Our elected officials may still reach a compromise that keeps the government from shutting down, something Democrats can praise for being less bad for poor people than it might have been. And I'm pleased that a bipartisan bill to establish an itemized tax receipt was introduced in the Senate; maybe it'll get a hearing once the dust settles. That could bring some sanity to how we talk about government spending.

But what will it take for our culture to stop blaming its most marginalized members for their own situation--and punishing them for problems they didn't cause?


Are Relatively Small Programs Relatively Easy to Replace?

Steve, I didn't even need to read past the title to know who the author would be. And with that established, where the article would land. Even so, you make an interesting remark that should provide a real challenge to us all. You say that the conversation in Washington "is limited to cuts in relatively small programs." That may be true, and if so, doesn't it translate into relatively small solutions? Solutions that Christians can fund because we want to? How many of us support the programs that we believe in with our giving and our service? Charitable giving is still tax deductible. For those who believe the nation would do well with higher taxes and more social spending (both of which seem laudible to you), we can give all we want to _and_ ensure that it is spent on food, shelter, and clothing simply by giving through our churches. Not a dime of that goes to the War Department (excuse me, the Defense Department) or other "less worthy" programs.

Our system lets us live our faith. Is no one willing to answer that call? Why demand the opportunity to give through Washington's inefficient bureaucracy when we have the opportunity to give directly those in need? It's a Christian century. Let's live like it.

Key word is "relatively"--as

Key word is "relatively"--as in, the programs are small relative to defense spending, social security, and Medicare, the real deficit drivers. It makes no sense to pivot from the word "small" to the suggestion that these programs' reduced impact would be easy to replace by nongovernmental groups; it's a vastly different budgetary scale.

I've never understood the argument that Christians ought to take care of the poor through charity to the exclusion of doing it through taxes. Seems to me we should do it by every means available. Yes, charitable giving (and direct service) is "living our faith"; so is advocating for public policy that meets human need.