Budget

Balancing our Budget through Humility, Shared Sacrifice, and Hope

Dome inside the U.S. Capitol Building, gary718 / Shutterstock.com
Dome inside the U.S. Capitol Building, gary718 / Shutterstock.com

This week a large number of Americans are celebrating Holy Week, leading up to Easter Sunday. Churches will be packed with both the regulars as well as the once- or twice-a-year worshippers for the "Super Bowl of Sundays" to celebrate Christ’s victory over death and sin and his glorious resurrection.    

In the midst of an exasperating and polarized political debate around the U.S. budget, our national and political leaders can learn valuable lessons from Holy Week. Whatever your faith background may be, we could all benefit from a greater commitment to the humility, shared sacrifice, and hope that Holy Week embodies. An extra dose of humility, sacrifice, and, ultimately, hope represent the balm that could bridge many of our ideological differences and resolve the current political impasse around the budget that has paralyzed our political system and divided the nation.

To Whom Do They Answer?

Beds in a homeless shelter, Nathan Kresge / Shutterstock.com
Beds in a homeless shelter, Nathan Kresge / Shutterstock.com

During this Holy Week, Christians around the world turn inward to reflect on the mystery and miracle of the death and resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Those two surpassing events are more than good enough to occupy the mind and heart of every believer. 

But they are not all that Jesus did in these eventful days. As any student of the scriptures will know, Jesus did not go quietly to the cross. Three days before his execution, he stormed the temple and challenged the seat of theocratic power in Jerusalem, condemning the pharisaic elite who "preach, but do not practice" and "tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the people's shoulders." (Matt. 23:3-4) He accused as hypocrites leaders who make token offerings yet "have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness … Inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence." (Matt. 23:23,25)

In his final teaching before the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday began, Jesus embraced those who are oppressed and cautioned his disciples that acts of love and mercy are the measure of a heart touched by grace. "For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me … Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me." (Matt. 25:35-40)

In honor of the occasion, Congress will close its doors and lawmakers will head home to be with their constituents for the Easter recess. If inside reports are to be trusted, they will leave Washington "armed with excuses" that explain away the latest fiscal fiasco, and the people will have little to say in reply. I pray it isn't so. 

The Sequester: Pocket Change?

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) leaves after a caucus meeting at the Capitol in February. Alex Wong/Getty Images

“I believe the sequester is a pittance.”

Those were conservative Sen. Rand Paul’s words in an opinion piece this week about the sequester – severe and arbitrary cuts to the federal budget that Congress did nothing to stop. We could give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he hasn’t seen the numbers:

  • The nutrition program for women with children — WIC — will have to turn away 600,000 to 775,000 women, many of whom have young children.
  • The 3.8 million currently unemployed workers will have their support cut by 11 percent.
  • 100,000 low-income families will lose their housing vouchers.
  • 125,000 individuals and families are now at risk of homelessness.

That doesn’t sound like a “pittance” to me.

Our Pastoral Letter on the Budget — And My Hope for the Common Good

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Senate Appropriations Committee hearing in Hart Building on the impacts of sequestration. Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

The sequester battle is a good but tragic example of how the idea of the common good is failing in American politics. By contrast, the growing bipartisan support for comprehensive immigration reform is an alternative example of how a moral issue can rise about our ideologically driven politics.

The faith community has stepped into both issues with a call for political leaders to serve the common good. On immigration, political leaders are listening to the faith leaders; on the debates about our nation’s fiscal soul, political leaders need to listen better.

Extending the Debt Ceiling.

New reports this afternoon are that House Republicans have agreed to vote next week on extending the debt ceiling for about three months, giving time for passage of a budget. The agreement would not require immediate spending cuts, a retreat from the previous GOP position. Democrats so far have responded cautiously to the plan for a short-term increase.

According to the Washington Post:

“House Republicans will scale back their ambitions in an upcoming fight over the nation’s borrowing limit, saying Friday that they will try to pass a bill next week to raise the debt ceiling for three months. But they indicated that the Senate must pass a budget before the lawmakers would agree to a longer-term increase in the limit.

“Under a bill to be considered next week, members will propose raising the debt ceiling through mid-April -- long enough, they say, to give both chambers time to pass a budget. Under the measure, if either chamber fails to adopt a budget by April 15, Congress would not be paid.”

The Choices We Face: A Guide for Faith Leaders to the Federal Budget and Tax Debate

The Choices We Face: A Guide for Faith Leaders to the Federal Budget and Tax Deb
The Choices We Face: A Guide for Faith Leaders to the Federal Budget and Tax Debate

For the past two years, Sojourners has been in the middle of every budget battle speaking out on behalf of poor and struggling families and individuals. With your help and support, we made news across the country by asking, “What Would Jesus Cut?” More than 30,000 people joined Jim Wallis in a fast for a moral budget. We’ve run print, radio, and TV ads. 

But, this work isn’t over. We need to prepare now.

That’s why Sojourners has teamed up with PICO, one of the nation’s largest community organizing networks, to create and distribute “The Choices We Face: A Guide for Faith Leaders to the Federal Budget and Tax Debate.”

Whistling 'Dixie' Off the Fiscal Cliff

SO HOW WAS your fall off the fiscal cliff? Did you drop straight to the bottom or bounce several times off jagged rocks on the way down, land in a bramble bush, and then stare back up at that annoying roadrunner? Ouch. (And why didn't the roadrunner jump off the cliff? Did he have a more reasonable approach to spending and taxation? Is he naturally more conciliatory with his opponents? Nah. He's just smarter about sudden dropoffs.)

I'm just asking because, as I write this, we're still heading toward that cliff, so I won't know if we drove off it, braked just short of it, or maybe stopped to ask directions from an old guy sitting by the side of the road in a tattered beach chair. "Yup, you keep going straight for a couple miles, then look for the coyote tracks."

There is no question that our nation is facing major fiscal imbalances—although, to be fair, our low wages are more than offset by high cholesterol. But hopefully the president—Barack "Whew!ssein" Obama—will have avoided the impending crisis by reaching a compromise with Republican leaders, although at press time it seemed he was drawing a clear line in the sand. Of course, that's easy to change because, you know, it's just sand.

But I've never cared for the cliff analogy. I think of a cliff as something you throw things off, like a stick you found, or a rock, or a Fox News pundit who is now talking positively about immigration reform. (Don't forget to make a wish before you make the toss.)

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Fiscal Cliff: Time to Challenge the 'Mighty on Their Thrones'

Alex Wong/Getty Images
U.S. Speaker of the House Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) speaks during his weekly news conference Dec. 20. Alex Wong/Getty Images

We must be very careful about bringing theological judgments to political ones. Most policy decisions are prudential judgments — compromises between two political parties, neither of which represents the kingdom of God. But sometimes, political ideologies come to a place where they so clearly threaten the well-being of so many and the very foundations of the common good that they must be challenged by theology. This is a moment like that. 

Speaker John Boehner’s tax bill that failed, and spending bill that passed in the House yesterday both fail the basic test of protecting the poor and vulnerable. While it does not look like even the spending bill has much of a future, what it portends for the future of the debate is grim.

Our Fiscal Soul and the Arithmetic of Protecting the Poor

Image by Tim Teebken / Getty Images
Image by Tim Teebken / Getty Images

The discussion we are having about “the fiscal cliff” is really a debate about our fiscal soul. What kind of nation do we want to be? We do need a path to fiscal sustainability, but will it include all of us — especially the most vulnerable? It’s a foundational moral choice for the country, and one with dramatic domestic and deadly global implications. It is the most important principle for the faith community in this debate.  

I had a recent conversation with an influential senator on these fiscal issues. I said to him, “You and I know the dozen or so senators, from both sides of the aisle, who could sit at your conference table here and find a path to fiscal sustainability, right?” 

“Yes,” he said, “we could likely name the senators who would be able to do that.” I added, “And they could protect the principle and the policies that defend the poor and vulnerable, couldn’t they?” 

“Yes,” he said, “We could do that too.” “But,” I asked, “Wouldn’t then all the special interests come into this room to each protect their own expenditures; and the end result would be poor people being compromised, right?” 

The senator looked us in the eyes and said, “That is exactly what will likely happen.”

It will happen unless we have bipartisan agreement, at least by some on both political sides, to protect the poor and vulnerable in these fiscal decisions — over the next several weeks leading up to Christmas and the New Year, and then for the longer process ahead in 2013. 

But for that to be viable, the arithmetic must work.

The REAL War on Christmas: Congress’ Budget Negotiations


Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
John Boehner, R-Ohio, holds his weekly on camera briefing in the Capitol on Thursday, Nov. 29. Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

There is some good stuff on the God’s Politics blog this week encouraging Christians to drop their concern about the “war on Christmas.” It’s a good idea. However, as we’re getting over our huff about “Happy Holidays,” we’d like to shift your attention to the real war on Christmas: the priorities of Washington politicians that are fundamentally at odds with the hope, love, joy, and peace celebrated by Christians during the Advent season.

As political leaders engage in negotiations to avoid the so-called “fiscal cliff,” we need them to preserve programs that reduce poverty and keep our families healthy. Unfortunately, House Speaker John Boehner and others in Congress are pushing to cut programs for the poor and vulnerable, while protecting tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans.

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