Washington — Catholic advocates are pressing Congress to make the needs of poor and vulnerable people a priority as legislators hammer out a federal spending plan for 2016.
The advocates told Catholic News Service they want to prevent trillions of dollars in social services spending from disappearing over the next decade as Congress seeks to balance the federal budget and reduce the nation's growing debt.
Their actions unfolded in recent weeks as they learned of Republican plans to remake the way social services such as Medicaid and food stamps are funded.
In meetings with individual members of Congress, they have stressed that the needs of hungry, homeless and unemployed people must be the country's highest priority.
"There are millions of people at stake in these decisions," said Brian Corbin, senior vice president for social policy at Catholic Charities USA, which has joined with Catholic Relief Services and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in meetings on Capitol Hill. "They all have a name and a face and based on our principle of human dignity, that name and that face and that family, those really are important to making issues of poverty real."
Those meetings are in addition to the lobbying efforts of Network, the Catholic social justice lobby; the National Advocacy Center of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd; and the Coalition on Human Needs.
In a letter to each member of Congress Feb. 27, the chairmen of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development and Committee on International Justice and Peace, reiterated that a budget is a moral document and that the needs of poor people are utmost despite the economic pressures posed by "future unsustainable deficits."
The federal budget "cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor persons," wrote Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami and Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, N.M. "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."
As the bishops' letter was circulating, Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., and Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., chairmen of Congress' respective budget committees, were crafting spending plans that called for balancing the federal budget within a decade with the goal of tackling the country's $18 trillion debt.
The House budget, called "A Balanced Budget for a Stronger America," cuts nearly $5.5 trillion in spending from current projections over the next decade. Specific spending reductions include Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance Program ($913 billion); Medicare ($148 billion); food stamps ($140 billion); housing, nutrition, job training, elderly services and other discretionary programs ($759 billion); and the repeal of the Affordable Care Act ($2.1 trillion).
In addition, both budgets call for increases in military spending over the decade while immediately adding tens of billions of dollars to Overseas Contingency Operations for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Senate plan was less specific, but identified only nonmilitary programs for reductions.
In a video posted on YouTube, Price explained that his plan would lead to gradually smaller deficits and is designed to let state legislators determine social services spending levels.
Former House budget committee chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., used similar language in calling for block grants for states to fund Medicaid and food stamps, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Using block grants to fund social services concerns the advocates.
Presentation Sr. Richelle Friedman, director of public policy at the Coalition on Human Needs, and Sr. Marge Clark, a domestic issues lobbyist at Network, said the needs of poor and vulnerable people were being pushed aside in the budget plans.
"We really knew it was going to bad, but we had not thought it would be this bad," Clark, a Sister of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, told CNS.
"We're really frustrated because the House leadership is talking about doing good things for the middle class and yet everything we see them doing is bad for the middle class and particularly bad for those struggling at the margins. They're making it impossible for them to survive and work," Clark said.
Friedman called the House budget "morally bankrupt."
"Rather than strengthening America for all who are currently being left behind, if elements of the budget were to become law it would be devastating to those vulnerable people," she said.
She added that the House budget did not include making permanent key provisions of two tax credits benefitting low- and moderate-income families which expire in 2018, but that it called for tax cuts for high-income earners.
Lawrence Couch, director of the National Advocacy Center of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, is specifically focusing on the tax credits. With the budgets now public, Couch said he also planned to alert center partners to contact members of Congress urging protection of vital safety net programs.
As the appropriations process advances this summer, Corbin at Catholic Charities USA said the agency would continue to urge Congress to examine social service programs that lift people out of poverty.
"The thing we really are concerned about is that there is a need for us to have a conversation in this country about what works and what doesn't work and not just stop short and hurt people along the way," he told CNS.
In calling for repeal of the ACA, Price offered no alternative for people who have enrolled in health insurance plans under the law. The White House said Monday that 16.4 million people have joined health insurance roles since 2010.
The two chambers were expected to settle on a final budget bill by April 15. After that, specific funding amounts will be debated in the respective appropriations committee.
It's unlikely that President Barack Obama would sign any budget bill that repeals the ACA, his signature piece of legislation.
Obama submitted a budget to Congress in February. It seeks broader spending overall with no balanced budget during the next 10 years. Obama proposed investing $478 billion over six years in the country's infrastructure, paying for it by changing how inherited wealth is taxed. He also proposed paying for two years of community college for all U.S. citizens with funds coming from a one-time 14 percent tax on corporate wealth repatriated from overseas. It also called for lifting caps on Pentagon and social service spending established by the sequestration law meant to reduce the federal deficit.
Congressional Republicans said they would not consider the plan.