Federal budget cuts: Not if, but how many and how deep
Country's emerging budget debate points to wide divide in election year.
The budget debates are just starting on Capitol Hill and in a highly polarized political climate that means they'll be going right through the Nov. 6 elections --- and most likely beyond.
It's how Washington works these days.
No matter what form the 2013 budget finally takes later this year or early next year, spending on some programs is expected to fall. It comes down to how deep those cuts will be, where they will be focused and whether new tax revenues are part of the picture.
The Republican-controlled House of Representatives approved a budget resolution written by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the House Budget Committee chairman, who admitted he is taking dead aim on the country's $15 trillion debt.
Ryan's $3.5 trillion plan --- with a $600 billion deficit --- calls for massive spending cuts in nonmilitary programs, turning Medicaid into a block grant program administered by the states, reshaping Medicare over the next decade and simplifying the tax code by closing loopholes and lowering individual and corporate tax rates.
Ryan, who is Catholic, told Catholic News Service March 27 that he believes addressing the country's debt is essential to head off a future crisis.
"We have a moral and legal responsibility to do everything we can here," he said. "The debt will literally overtake the economy like it is in Europe."
He reserved his main concerns for Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security and said his plan will ensure their future without bankrupting the government.
The real work on the budget will come over the summer and into the fall as House subcommittees begin to consider specific appropriations.
The Senate is not a player in the budget debate. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., Senate majority leader, said in February that Democrats do not plan to introduce a formal budget because guidelines under the debt-ceiling agreement reached in December are sufficient.
Faith-based groups --- from church-centered social action committees and grass-roots organizations to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops --- have begun mobilizing to minimize cuts to what they consider vital safety net programs.
They say that in dealing with the debt, military spending and the need to raise revenues must be on the table. While the bishops have not specified how to approach the revenue side of the equation, other advocates want most of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts to expire.
The chairmen of two USCCB committees reiterated their call for a "circle of protection" around poor and vulnerable people in the United States and abroad in a letter to House members March 6.
Congress should base budget decisions on whether they protect or threaten human life and dignity and if they promote the common good of "workers and families who struggle to live in dignity in difficult economic times," wrote Bishops Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, Calif., and Richard E. Pates of Des Moines, Iowa.
Bishop Blaire is chairman of the bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development and Bishop Pates is chairman of their Committee on International Justice and Peace.
"A just framework for future budgets cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor persons; it requires shared sacrifice by all, including raising adequate revenues, eliminating unnecessary military and other spending and addressing the long-term costs of health insurance and retirement programs fairly," their letter said.
Kathy Saile, director of domestic social development for the USCCB, explained that cuts in food assistance programs proposed in the Ryan budget pose as much concern for the bishops as reductions for low-income housing programs in President Barack Obama's budget.
"The bishops are not only talking about let's prevent the cuts that disproportionately hurt poor and vulnerable people, but also recognize we have an ongoing fiscal problem so we need to look at the revenue too," she said.
Meanwhile, officials at Catholic Charities USA have decided to wait until the appropriations process begins to weigh in.
"The budget conversations currently taking place are largely based in political posturing in an election year," Candy Hill, the agency's senior vice president for public policy and government affairs, told CNS March 28. "We don't intend to engage in the budget conversation at that level. Our focus is on the millions of people still struggling and coming to our doors."
Presentation Sister Richelle Friedman, director of public policy at the Coalition on Human Needs, echoed the bishops' call. In a presentation at the Ecumenical Advocacy Days conference in Arlington, Va., March 24, she said budget decisions and tax policy have a moral dimension.
"Who pays taxes, how the revenues are used, what priorities, how fair the system is are all moral questions," she said at a conference workshop.
She pointed to the principle of subsidiarity, as expressed in Catholic social teaching, as central to the budget debate. Under subsidiarity, the government should undertake only those initiatives which exceed the capacity of individuals or private groups acting independently, she explained.
"Some would say our government is doing too much," Sister Richelle said. "However, under subsidiarity if the private sector is either unwilling or unable to meet basic human needs for food, shelter, education, it is the responsibility of the government to do so."
Ryan's budget poses a stark contrast to that view as well as the budget proposals from the White House and House Democrats. Both Democratic plans call for new spending on transportation and infrastructure as job creation initiatives, allowing tax cuts for the highest income earners to expire and deeper cuts in military programs. Obama's plan would spend $3 trillion more than Ryan's proposal over the next decade while projecting a gradual decline in deficit spending.
The Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Progressive Caucus also have put out budget plans.
But a bipartisan plan that emerged March 28 is one that some analysts think comes closest to what likely will be adopted after the election if leadership in Congress and the White House remains split among Republicans and Democrats. The plan calls for deeper spending cuts than the two Democratic budgets but is more moderate than Ryan's resolution. It also would allow the Bush-era tax cuts to expire, but would institute a lower top tax rate --- 29 percent versus 35 percent.
For his part, Ryan told CNS that the simplified tax structure he wants --- 10 percent for individuals with moderate incomes, 25 percent for those in higher income brackets and a maximum 25 percent corporate rate --- is necessary to spur economic growth and job development.
Ryan offered no apologies for seeking cuts in nonmilitary programs. He said the cost of entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid are exploding and must be reined in so that they survive.
"I don't look at government's aspiration as trying to treat the symptoms of poverty and making it easier to live with and cope with. I look at it as trying to address the root causes of poverty and trying to eradicate it," he said.