US bishops' conference largely disappointed by debt ceiling agreement

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John Carr, Executive Director for Justice, Peace, and Human Development

Despite a few positive developments from the recent debt ceiling agreement, the budget debates were mostly discouraging in their lack of concern for the poor, the U.S. bishops' conference said.

“This debate demonstrated the partisan, ideological, and dysfunctional polarization that dominates Washington,” said John Carr, executive director of the conference's department of Justice, Peace and Human Development. “It wasn’t pretty, and it isn’t over.”

“While the crisis of default was averted,” Carr added, “for advocates of poor and vulnerable people, this debate was disappointing, ominous, and just a beginning.”

The debate over the federal debt ceiling officially ended on Aug. 2 as the Senate voted 74-26 to approve a bill that President Obama signed soon after. 

In an Aug. 3 statement, Carr first noted the debate's positive aspects, recalling how the bishops' conference joined with “an unprecedented group” of dozens of Christian leaders and communities. Together, they urged legislators to protect the poor and vulnerable both locally and internationally.

He also praised the final deal for including a “crucial provision” to exempt low-income programs from automatic cuts that would take effect if a special Congressional committee cannot agree on the next round of required deficit reductions.

“This was one of the last issues resolved and means that Medicaid, food stamps, Child Nutrition, Unemployment Compensation, the Earned Income and Child tax credits, and other core low-income programs will not be automatically cut if the committee cannot reach agreement,” Carr said.

Despite this advancement, however, Carr said that ultimately the “deal fell short.”

The legislation “did not reflect the criteria called for by the bishops in their letters to and meetings with policy makers,” which included “fulfilling the demands of justice and moral obligations to future generations; controlling future debt and deficits; and protecting the lives and dignity of those who are poor and vulnerable.”

Instead, the legislation will require major cuts to discretionary programs, largely affecting needy individuals and families. Carr said these programs, along with international development and other poverty-focused programs, “remain particularly vulnerable to major cuts, with all their human costs and moral implications.”

Additionally, Carr noted, one provision of the final agreement would require that roughly $4 billion be cut from “security” spending for 2013. However, the legislation defines “security” to include not just defense and homeland security but also the State Department and USAID budgets.

“Under this unique arrangement, all international humanitarian, development, health, and refugee resources are in direct competition with funds for military and homeland security.”

“This means,” he added, “that the already vociferous resistance to major reductions in Pentagon spending could require even greater cuts in international assistance to the sick and hungry around the world.”

Carr also said that fears of cuts to poverty-focused international development and humanitarian assistance are “well founded,” since the House Committee on Appropriations already proposed cutting these programs in Fiscal Year 2012 by 13 percent in addition to the 8 percent cut last year.

He stressed that both the U.S. bishops and Catholic Relief Services “have called these deadly cuts unwise, unjust, and unnecessary.”

“In August and throughout the fall, we will all need to raise our voices and make our case that it would be wrong to further cut programs that serve those with the greatest needs in our own country and around the world.”

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