Wednesday, May 15, 2013

A Travesty of American Governance

A Travesty of American Governance: 
Congress restores cuts to the FAA but leaves the poor and hungry out in the cold

A Statement by J. Herbert Nelson
Director for Public Witness, PC(USA)

At the end of last month, the House and Senate passed a shameful bill before leaving for their in-district work period – the Reducing Flight Delays Act of 2013 (S 853/HR 1765).  Rather than replacing the sequester (automatic, across-the-board, spending cuts) with a comprehensive and balanced approach to deficit reduction, they passed a sequester fix only for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).  This fix is designed to mitigate long delays for airline passengers, including Members of Congress, while ignoring the true hardship that is being caused by these indiscriminate and irresponsible cuts.  Rather than standing up for the most vulnerable in our society, they sided with the privileged, whose inconvenience while traveling was more important than hunger among families who will not have enough food on the table this month.

These spending cuts, known inside the DC Beltway as “the sequester,” not only affect the airline industry, but most government programs.  From scientific and medical research, to public transit projects, to international humanitarian development funds, to the social safety net that helps support the lowest income earners in the country. Programs like Head Start, housing assistance, the WIC Nutrition program, Meals on Wheels, among many others, have been left with desperate choices of how to cut their budgets for the remainder of the year.   For example:

  • Head Start, an early-childhood education program proven to improve long-term school outcomes for low-income children, is having to cancel summer programs or end regular school year programs weeks early (if not drop children altogether).  In total, 70,000 children are expected to be denied Head Start.[1]
  • Seniors are losing home-delivered meals, and 140,000 fewer households will receive vouchers to help them afford decent housing.[2]  
  • Jobless workers are losing their unemployment benefits. Roughly 800,000 workers have seen their benefits cut by approximately 10%. When all of the states implement these cuts, this will affect about 3.8 million unemployed workers. [3]

The Sequester was designed to be awful.  It is a blunt tool whose indiscriminate, across-the-board cuts were supposed to be considered so unthinkable, that Members of Congress would be forced to come up with a more compassionate solution to deficit reduction.  But Congress failed to act and we are now reaping the consequences of their failure. 

But a piecemeal approach to fixing the sequester is not the answer.  Certainly the Air Traffic Controllers who were being forced to take furloughs are benefiting from this congressional action, but at its root, passage of this bill is a selfish move designed to benefit the privileged and remove a politically embarrassing news story from the 24-hour news cycle.  While jets are being filled with fuel, millions of Americans run on empty stomachs. While business people no longer have to wait in long lines for their flights, the poor are lining up for housing assistance in the longest lines ever. The cozy first-class flight from DC to Los Angeles costs approximately the same as one month's salary for a full-time worker making minimum wage.[4]

Once again, Congress has missed the mark on what is truly important.  We need to replace the sequester, but not in a piecemeal fashion where the wealthiest beneficiaries and strongest special interests line up to get their bite at the apple first.  Rather, we need a comprehensive replacement to the sequester that cuts judiciously where we can afford to cut spending (for example, the pentagon budget), while also bringing in new revenue – tax dollars from those who can most afford to pay for the good of all, so that we can meet our shared priorities and make sure that fewer people are hungry, more children have access to education, and more people find a desperately needed job.  This is where the priorities of Congress should have been at the end of April, and should still be today, not with annoyed travelers whose inconvenience will leave them annoyed, but not hungry, thirsty, or homeless. 

It is time to stand up and tell Congress that basic necessities such as food, shelter, and education are more important than long lines in airports. When I think of what this bill says about our shared values, I think we must be proclaiming, "Blessed are the wealthy," completely neglecting Jesus' own words, "Blessed are the poor." Can we ever proclaim the blessedness of the poor when our government systemically keeps them in poverty?

Our mission is not to make the poor become rich; nor is it to demonize the rich. Our mission is to ensure that the playing field is leveled. Every human being deserves to have enough. This shameful bill is a travesty of American governance.