“Budgets are moral documents”
~ Rev. Jim Wallis
“What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility... This is the price and promise of citizenship.”
~Barack Obama, January 20, 2009
There are moments when the contrast of values between progressives and conservatives is clear. Appropriately enough many these moment happen when budgets are considered. The vote on Bush’s 2006 budget was one such moment, and now we are witnessing another.
December 14, 2005, was certainly not the first time progressives and conservatives clashed over values. Nor was it the first time that progressive values were the basis for action against injustice. But it was a significant clash, especially in light of where progressives stand now: with a budget -- a moral document -- to fight for, and not against.
Congress was preparing to leave Washington for the holidays, on December 14, 2005, and as members inside the capitol were preparing to vote on president Bush’s 2006 budget, progressive activists were outside the capitol protesting that same budget. But this little-reported conflict spotlighted the start contrast between conservatives and progressives on values, as each cited values the basis of their support for a budget that cut programs for the poor, as well as the usual tax cuts.
When hundreds of religious activists try to get arrested today to protest cutting programs for the poor, prominent conservatives such as James Dobson, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell will not be among them.
That is a great relief to Republican leaders, who have dismissed the burgeoning protests as the work of liberals. But it raises the question: Why in recent years have conservative Christians asserted their influence on efforts to relieve Third World debt, AIDS in Africa, strife in Sudan and international sex trafficking — but remained on the sidelines while liberal Christians protest domestic spending cuts?
Conservative Christian groups such as Focus on the Family say it is a matter of priorities, and their priorities are abortion, same-sex marriage and seating judges who will back their position against those practices.
“It’s not a question of the poor not being important or that meeting their needs is not important,” said Paul Hetrick, a spokesman for Focus on the Family, Dobson’s influential, Colorado-based Christian organization. “But whether or not a baby is killed in the seventh or eighth month of pregnancy, that is less important than help for the poor? We would respectfully disagree with that.”
At the same time that some members of Congress were pushing for a resolution to “protect Christmas,” some of the same members voted for rather Scrooge-like cuts to aid to poor families.
“There is a Christmas scandal in this nation that has nothing to do with people at shopping malls saying ‘Happy Holidays’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas,’” said Rev. Wallis, a nondenominational evangelical Protestant minister.
He was one of several speakers to contrast their concerns with a campaign by some religious groups and politicians to encourage the use of the word Christmas instead of more generic terms and greetings. “The scandal is the budget in Congress,” he said.
The House budget, passed Nov. 18 by a two-vote margin, would cut off food stamps for more than 250,000 by 2008, cut $10 billion from Medicaid funding, and reduce support for foster care, child support enforcement and aid to disabled people by $8 billion. It also would increase mandatory work hours for welfare recipients while underfunding a related child care program, cutting off 270,000 families.
In 2009, progressive are not just outside the doors of Congress, protesting an unjust budget. Plenty of us are now fighting for the the progressive programs in the budget that many Americans need in this economic crisis, and against a conservative “alternative” that makes it clear who they’re fighting for.
The president’s budget, which just passed the House and Senate with with no Republican votes, and the Republican party’s alternative couldn’t be further apart.
President Obama’s budget and agenda offer what his senior advisor David Axelrod called a “new foundation” in a recent interview.
“Things have been out of balance for the last decade,” Axelrod said. “We want to restore that sense of balance, that we’re all in this together. We’re not doing this right if we have a small group of people who are benefiting while most aren’t. The president wants to create a prosperity that is broadly held.
“We talk about ‘the new foundation,’ ” he continued. “You can build a lovely house, but if it’s built on a soft foundation, it’s going to collapse. The foundation to us is energy, health care and education.”
That’s why Obama has been so reluctant to give up these policy reforms, even as critics chide him for trying to do too much. The new programs are the reward for all the pain the country is experiencing — the insurance policy for future prosperity.
Axelrod explains the link this way: “The president’s main focus is developing an economy that is not rooted in the bubble and bust, not rooted in an overheated housing market or maxed-out credit cards. He sees a future where we’re a leader in energy technology, where we once again have the best-educated workforce in the world, where health-care costs are not on a disastrous trajectory.”
That “disastrous trajectory” can be charted by the headlines we’ve all read since this recession began, and seen up close in the sacrifices the economic downturn has wrung from everyday Americans and their families. And we’re still on that trajectory. Today’s headlines blare out that: unemployment is now at 8.5%, bankruptcy filings are going up as a result of job losses, one ten Americans-- a record 32.2 million -- now receive food stamps, and the rise of “tent cities” poses problems for the upcoming census.
And the Republican party -- which has essentially suggested that the government do nothing while Americans suffer in the teeth of this crisis -- presented a budget that says the same thing. But choosing to do nothing (except what’s already been tried and has failed) is really making another choice: stay the course on that disastrous trajectory.
Just in time for April Fools’ Day, and in time for congressional debate on the Obama administration’s non-pamphletized budget proposal, comes the “details” GOP members failed to supply last week. Virtually every element contained within is a bad rehash of all the failed Republican ideas from the last couple of decades. In short, it’s like the return of a bad headache: smaller government, lower taxes, drill everything, and trust us.
Specifically, the new GOP budget proposal involves killing the recently-passed stimulus package in 2010, killing the Obama administration’s budget proposal outright, placing a freeze on all non-defense and non-veteran spending, privatizing Medicare, cutting corporate tax rates to 25 percent, and increasing offshore oil drilling.
The GOP plan to privatize Medicare, specifically, has inspired hoots from virtually every corner. Brian Beutler of Talking Points Memo reported on Wednesday that, “This is an idea that’s been kicking around in conservative circles for some time, and it’s an expensive one. Well, it’s expensive unless you’re an insurance company, in which case it’s extremely lucrative. The goal is to phase out Medicare over time by providing new seniors with the same health insurance options available under the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program. The FEHBP provides relatively high quality care, and most working-aged people would probably prefer its options over the ones provided by their employers. But Medicare provides similar quality of care while containing the cost of treating elderly, and those costs would rise if they were outsourced to private insurance companies.”
…Just to be clear, a spending freeze would further drive down the economy. The annihilation of Medicare would harm millions of Americans. Tax cuts for the wealthy are a pipe-dream financial fix that has never worked, and the rest of the GOP’s proposals came out of the same broken toy-box that gave us all the wonderful economic insanity we currently enjoy.
Conservatives are serious, by the way, about killing off the stimulus money that -- despite Republicans’ efforts to trim jobs from the stimulus package -- is putting people back to work in communities across the country, including my own.
When American Infrastructure won the contract to repave a section of New Hampshire Avenue, Bryan White, 47, of Aberdeen, was one of the employees who got the call to return to work.
“It’s wonderful,” White said of the project, cited as the first in the nation under the $26.6 billion released by President Barack Obama from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to state and local governments to repair and build roadways and bridges. “It’s going to create more jobs. I know I’m happy.”
White is usually laid off during the winter months due to the seasonal nature of his job, but with the economy in the tank and state and county governments cutting back on infrastructure work, he had feared that his layoff would be extended.
“Now I’m getting caught up on bills,” he said. “That’s the big thing right now.”
Stimulus money may also put the employees of Republic Windows and Doors back to work.
It’s also making its way to schools and small towns (where it might also ease the economic pain of the GOP’s own constituents). It’s not just GOP governors in the hardest-hit states refusing funds. Now conservatives are calling RNC chairman to a meeting about targeting the stimulus.
The conservative message to everyday Americans squeezed in the crisis that conservatism created is this: Tough luck. You’re on your own.
But in the Senate, Republicans (along with far too many Democrats) sent a different message with their votes on the inheritance tax about which Americans are their top priority.
The Senate budget debate began this week against a backdrop of war and recession, rising unemployment and surging foreclosures, runaway health care costs and diminishing insurance coverage -- to name just a few of the nation's big problems. But for Senator Blanche Lincoln, Democrat of Arkansas, and Senator Jon Kyl, Republican of Arizona, the most pressing issue is clear: America's wealthiest families need help. Now.
…The proverbial millionaires next door -- the plumbers, contractors and accountants who amass substantial wealth through hard work and modest living -- are not the intended beneficiaries of the proposed cut. The Obama budget already takes care of them, because it retains today's law, which imposes the estate tax only on couples with property worth more than $7 million, or individuals with property worth more than $3.5 million. That means 99.8 percent of estates will never -- ever -- pay a penny of estate tax.
The heirs of the remaining 0.2 percent of estates are who Ms. Lincoln and Mr. Kyl are so worried about. The heirs of the remaining 0.2 percent of estates are who Ms. Lincoln and Mr. Kyl are so worried about. Their amendment would increase to $10 million the level at which the estate tax kicks in. It would also lower the top estate-tax rate to 35 percent from 45 percent.
With all the serious work before Congress, it is a colossal waste of time to have to rebut the false claims and warped premises of ardent estate-tax cutters. Ms. Lincoln's and Mr. Kyl's colleagues in the Senate should make short work of it and move on to urgent matters.
Ah, but they did move on to more urgent matters, at least as far as they’re concerned.
If budgets are moral documents, it’s because they clarify what and whom we value, and where our priorities lie.
Progressive values are not new, of course, but as old as the not-exclusively-American ideals of equality, fairness and even responsibility. As I’ve said before, those values are embodied in every American progressive movement -- from the abolitionist movement, to the civil rights movement, the suffragists, the feminist movement, the labor movement, and the civil rights movement -- that sought social justice by expanding the promise of America and applying the ideals of America to more Americans, when the status quo demanded otherwise.
Thus, values driven clashes between progressive and conservative aren’t new either. We’ve been here before. The difference is that now we have a chance to put progressive values to work and turn America off its disastrous trajectory.