The Moral Default

By Jim Wallis 8-02-2011

The debate we have just witnessed has shown Washington, D.C. to be not just broken, but corrupt. The American people are disgusted watching politicians play political chicken with the nation's economy and future. In such a bitter and unprincipled atmosphere, whoever has the political clout to enforce their self-interest and retain their privileges wins the battles. But there are two casualties in such political warfare: the common good and the most vulnerable.

So how will vulnerable people fare under this deal? "The Circle of Protection," a diverse nonpartisan movement of Christian leaders, has been deeply engaged in the budget debate to uphold the principle that low-income people should be protected. But it is hard to evaluate a deal that averts a crisis when the crisis wasn't necessary in the first place. Over the past few weeks, our economy has indeed been held hostage as politicians negotiated the price of the release. Ultimately, I think most of us wish that no hostages had been taken in the first place, and this was no way to run a government or make important budget decisions.

The deal just passed by the House and Senate raises the debt ceiling with enough room that the issue won't have to be revisited until 2013. The first phase is a set of agreed-upon cuts of nearly $1 trillion over the next 10 years. The second phase sets up a committee of legislators that is tasked with finding another $1.5 trillion in cuts over the same time period. If the committee fails to come up with a deal, then a "trigger" is pulled and automatic cuts are enacted. These triggered cuts are designed to be distasteful enough that, in theory, both sides will stay at the table until they have an agreement.

It appears that the voice of the faith community was at least heard and made some difference in the outcome of the default debate. We met with the president and Democratic leaders Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, and all of them fought to defend low-income people as we asked them to do. The White House protected low-income entitlement programs from automatic cuts in the "trigger" and successfully defended Medicaid. We also pleaded for low-income people in meetings with Republican Paul Ryan and with the staffs of John Boehner and Mitch McConnell. They told us they agreed with the principle but did not uphold it in their final proposals. We hope and pray that the protestations of the faith community will work on the hearts of both Republicans and Democrats as the details of this plan are worked out.

Genuinely reforming federal programs, including entitlements, with a special eye to protect the most vulnerable, is something the faith community has supported, but slashing programs for the poor while exempting the rich from sacrifice is repugnant to our spiritual values and contrary to scripture. This plan could still go either way.

The most glaring problem with the deal is that it doesn't, at this point, include revenues. There is no balancing between spending cuts and tax increases, and this deal, so far, falls completely on the side of spending cuts. It is possible that revenues will be revisited in the new super committee, but given the insistence of a cuts-only approach by the Republican leaders, it is not clear how likely a more balanced approach will be.

Corporate tax loopholes for the very rich were protected, while the core safety net for the most vulnerable is still in great jeopardy. The private jet industry mobilized to protect its tax deductions; the most profitable oil companies in the country will continue to get their public money for offshore drilling subsidies. But programs like WIC and SNAP -- providing critical nutrition help for low-income mothers and their kids -- and malaria bed nets and vaccinations for children in Africa are threatened. If the wealthy are not asked to share in the sacrifice, then cuts will undoubtedly come from those who can least afford it. But if sacrifice is shared, we can both reduce the deficit and reduce poverty as our country has done before.

We heard from those inside the negotiations that the voice of the faith community was heard -- your voice mattered. The 18,202 people across the country who joined the "Circle of Protection" have shown that poor people do have a constituency looking out for them -- and that's what matters in these debates, according to the people involved in them.

This national debate about our priorities and, indeed, our character, is far from over. When all is said and done in any final deal, the faith community will be watching to see if the most vulnerable are being protected or savaged for the financial sins of the rest of us. If low-income people are not exempted from deficit reduction, the result will be a fundamental moral default. With your help, we will continue to remind our legislators to remember that God is watching them too.


Jim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: A Guide for Economic and Moral Recovery, and CEO of Sojourners. He blogs at Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

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