Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Tell Congress: Stop Playing Politics with People's Lives

When being sworn into office, members of Congress must affirm that they “will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office.” But in recent days, many Members of Congress have lost sight of this promise. Instead of dedicating themselves to promoting the common good and serving the needs of communities they are elected to represent, they are choosing to defund programs that serve the most vulnerable people in the country, to create unnecessary fiscal crises, and to engage in ideologically-driven, gridlock-producing debates.  In other words, they are displaying a willful refusal to engage in the business of government.

Last Thursday, Sept. 19, the House of Representatives approved a bill that will cut $40 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly the Food Stamp Program) in a narrow vote of 217 to 210.  For several OPW blog posts about and in opposition to this bill, click here.  If this bill were enacted as passed, it would cut 4 million people from the program, reduce benefits for others, and cut 210,000 children from the free school meals program, among other things. In 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, SNAP lifted 4 million people out of poverty and made tens of millions of people less poor than they otherwise would have been.  SNAP is one of our nation’s most effective and efficient anti-hunger tools and these cuts can only be characterized as draconian.  

The next day, the House passed a “Continuing Resolution,” a short-term funding bill, in lieu of full-year appropriations.  The bill not only continues post-sequester spending levels (i.e. indiscriminate, multi-year, across-the-board spending cuts), but also defunds the Affordable Care Act (ACA, also known as Obamacare).  The ACA has been the law of the land since 2010 and was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2012. The House of Representatives has already taken over 40 votes either to repeal or defund the ACA to no avail. This further effort to defund Obamacare is an attempt to force a political end when it cannot be accomplished through regular legislative procedure.  It is also a political non-starter, given the current divided Congress, and fails to offer a meaningful way forward, either on health care or the coming budget crisis. A political showdown is ensuing, as the specter of a government shutdown looms at the start of October.

This sort of grandstanding is irresponsible, endangering those who rely on the government, from those who receive WIC nutrition assistance or Head Start, to those who enjoy the beauty of national parks, to federal employees, who, as a group, outnumber any other single employer’s labor force.  Other impacts of a government shutdown could include:

  •          Delays or cuts in unemployment insurance and veterans’ benefits;
  •          Suspended cleanup at toxic waste sites;
  •          Cessation of new FHA home loan guarantees;
  •          Delayed processing of visas, passports, and other government applications; among others.

Instead of these politically motivated squabbles, Members of Congress should be focusing on the true issue at hand – keeping government programs funded so that they can continue to serve the common good.  Congress must pass a spending bill, and soon.  Even as they are already looking past Sept. 30 to the next big, manufactured political crisis, the raising of the debt ceiling. 

With the clock rapidly ticking toward the September 30 deadline, we need bold leadership and effective governance. Our elected officials have been placed into office to serve the needs of the people they represent and to govern with integrity. It is unjust to use funding for vital programs critical to people’s lives as leverage for forcing policy. The time has come for our leaders to put aside distracting partisan debates and negotiate an agreement on the federal budget.

For the last several years, the PC(USA) has joined with a broad spectrum of interfaith partners in calling for a Faithful Budget which reflects a commitment to robust funding for programs that serve the common good and adequate revenue to meet these commitments. It is grounded in our faith call to love our neighbors and to care for all of God’s people and creation. We remember Peter’s charge to leaders that they:

“Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.” (1 Peter 5:2-3, NIV)

* Many thanks to partners at the United Church of Christ for collaborating with us on this piece.

** Correction printed on Sept. 26, 2013: Social Security benefits have been determined "essential services" by the Department of the Treasury and will not be disrupted by a government shutdown.