As the Republicans haggle over whether to support their own plan for raising the nation’s debt ceiling, an “unprecedented” coalition of religious leaders are urging President Obama and Congress not to sacrifice the needs of the poor in the name of debt reduction. Even the conservative U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops joined the effort, singling out House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-OH) plan for its “disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor persons.”
In scrutinizing the debt deals, some religious leaders praised the plans for at least exempting low-income “means-tested” programs from across-the-board cuts. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities notes today, however, that Boehner’s plan does not actually exempt programs like Medicaid and food stamps from such cuts. Instead, it does the opposite.
Breaking a 26-year policy of exempting basic low-income entitlement programs from across-the-board cuts, both of the House Republican plans — “Cut, Cap, and Balance” Act and Boehner’s debt-ceiling proposal — “drop all of the low-income exemptions that have been part of every previous across-the-board cut mechanism since 1985″:
For 26 years, all budget legislation that would trigger across-the-board cuts if Congress fails to meet a fiscal target has exempted the basic low-income (or “means-tested”) entitlement programs from those cuts. The Gramm-Rudman-Hollings laws of 1985 and 1990, the deficit reduction agreement of 1990, and the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 — all bipartisan pieces of legislation — included that exemption. So did last year’s “pay-as-you-go” law, which requires Congress to offset the cost of new tax cuts or increases in entitlement programs so they don’t increase the deficit. Congress has never enacted a law with an across-the-board cut mechanism that subjects core assistance for the poor to these cuts.
But in the last few weeks, House Republicans have advanced two major pieces of legislation that would do just that. Both the “Cut, Cap, and Balance Act,” which the House passed last week, and the new Boehner debt-ceiling proposal drop all of the low-income exemptions that have been part of every previous across-the-board cut mechanism since 1985.
“In an exercise in political cynicism,” CBPP notes that both bills include an exemption for payments to Medicare providers that was not part of previous laws. This allows Republicans to avoid another hit from the senior community “even as they subject those living below the poverty line to the risk of automatic cuts that would push them even deeper into poverty.” Earlier this week, CBPP put out an analysis showing that Boehner’s debt ceiling plan “could well produce the greatest increase in poverty and hardship produced by any law in modern U.S. history.”
The Republican move to cut a long-standing bipartisan protection for the poor really brings into question exactly which Americans Republicans say they’re fighting for. Religious leaders should take note. If asked “What Would Jesus Cut,” it seems Republicans are determined to provide the wrong answer.