President Obama released his budget proposal Monday, officially staking his position in what will amount to a political knife-fight of epic proportions between his administration and congressional Republicans over America's fiscal future in the weeks ahead.
Ironically, Obama and his Republican opponents have more in common on the budget than they're likely to admit. The respective proposals of both parties "solve" America's fiscal woes through cuts to programs that help poor people, while increasing military spending and -- just as morally tone-deaf and mind-numbingly irresponsible -- passing the buck on our nation's longer-term fiscal problems.
Positioning his administration as a fiscally responsible alternative to congressional Republicans ahead of the 2012 presidential elections, Obama's proposed budget cuts America's ballooning deficits by $1 trillion over the next decade. It accomplishes this through a combination of across-the-board spending freezes, deep cuts to important social programs, and targeted tax increases -- including a proactive commitment to finally end Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans after they are set to expire again in two years.
These cuts were originally extended as the result of a controversial (and fiscally irresponsible) compromise between the Obama administration and congressional Republicans in December 2010 to prevent a tax-hike on middle-class Americans. Total cost? $860 billion over two years -- almost exactly what Obama proposes to save in the next decade, and far less than would be needed to avoid budget cuts that hurt the poor.
Obama's budget plan also includes a controversial measure to reduce the value of itemized deductions -- including charitable contributions -- for those in the top income tax-bracket by 30 percent. Anyone working in the social sector can anticipate the negative effect this will likely have on their budget next year. Decreased donor participation will be passed onto the poorest Americans and most vulnerable people around the world as nonprofit organizations scale back services to balance their own books.
Meanwhile, congressional Republicans released their own budget proposal last week. Not surprisingly, it is even more heartless, ruthless, and draconian in its likely effects on low-income Americans and those living in poverty around the world -- provoking Michael Gerson, a Republican and former Bush speechwriter, to challenge his own party, saying:
As I was visiting hospitals and health huts in Senegal, I was also receiving e-mailed updates on House GOP budget cuts. The Global Fund, down 40 percent. Child survival programs, which include anti-malaria efforts, down 10 percent. AIDS relief, down 8 percent. Development assistance, down 30 percent.
These reductions were intended to be symbolic, but what do they symbolize? Fiscal responsibility? Hardly. No one can reasonably claim that the budget crisis exists because America spends too much on bed nets and AIDS drugs. Our massive debt is mainly caused by a combination of entitlement commitments, an aging population and health cost inflation. Claiming courage or credit for irrelevant cuts in foreign assistance is a net subtraction from public seriousness on the deficit.
So, do these cuts symbolize the Republican rejection of fuzzy-headed liberalism? Actually, the main initiatives on malaria and AIDS were created under Republican leadership. They emphasize measured outcomes and accountability. If the goal of House Republicans is to squander the Republican legacy on global health, they are succeeding.
Launching a campaign called What Would Jesus Cut last week -- evocative of the popular WWJD bracelets of the early 1990s -- Jim Wallis also lambasted the moral priorities of congressional Republicans:
I believe that vaccines that save children's lives; bed nets that protect them from malaria; and food that keeps their families from starving are more important to Jesus than tax cuts for the rich; bigger subsidies for corporations; and more weapons in a world already filled with conflict. I also believe that tested and effective domestic programs that clearly help to lift people out of poverty are more reflective of the compassion of Christ than tax and spending policies that make the super-rich even richer.
In Great Britain, [conservative] Prime Minister Cameron made the choice to delay a costly nuclear submarine program while also increasing funding for international aid. We can do the same. Look to leaders in the faith community to say that the choice to protect the rich instead of the poor in deficit reduction is an immoral one. Taking the cutting knife to programs that benefit low-income people, while refusing to scrutinize the much larger blank checks we keep giving to defense contractors and corporate executives, is hypocritical and cruel. I'll go even further and say that such a twisted moral calculus for the nation's fiscal policy is simply not fair, and not right. It is not only bad economics, but also bad religion.
In the weeks ahead, as congressional Republicans and the Obama administration mobilize for a massive political battle over America's budgetary future -- one that is largely being waged at the expense of poor people -- my prayer is for Christians to remember the moral and social priorities of Jesus of Nazareth.
And may we critique both sides in this debate to the extent they fail to live up to the biblical standard to care for those he called, "the least of these."
Chris LaTondresse is the founder & CEO of Recovering Evangelical. Raised in the former Soviet Union as the son of American missionary parents, he spent his young-adult years serving at bible camps, mega-churches and working in politics for a Democratic member of Congress and for the Republican Governor of Minnesota. These experiences provided him with a global outlook and a commitment to the idea that God is not a Republican or a Democrat.