Budget bust

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Obama’s 2012 budget included enough to annoy everybody. At $3.73 trillion it continues head-spinning deficit spending of over $1 trillion. That should provoke Tea Partiers (and anybody wondering how we’re going to pay for this spending, or rather, how our great-grandchildren will) into fury. But what has raised the ire of his liberal supporters and leadership among the Catholic Church is the nature of what little cutting and freezing was included in the proposal. Virtually all of it was focused on the 12 percent of the discretionary budget that includes social services. Left out from the pain was the Pentagon. Though it accounts for roughly 58 percent of discretionary spending and 20 percent of total federal spending, the defense budget will be forced to live with only minor spending increases in the coming years while the rest of the government is cut back or locked down for five years.

Obama is trying to tread a fine line across the next few fragile years faced by the U.S. economy. He wants to have his Keynes and eat his Hayek, too, by shifting around for some cash for stimulus and infrastructure investment, while acquiescing to the latest political taste for austerity. That may suit his centerist poltical impulses, but what will it mean for the U.S. economy as it continues an apparently jobless recovery? We’ll know one way or another by 2013, I guess, when the nation will be in full restoration or spiraling into a new depression. Early signs from nations such as Ireland and Great Britain that have embraced austerity (UK by choice; Ireland, not so much) are not promising.

It could be that the Prez is engaging in some zen-Jedi-mind trick, budget force-pushing that is too subtle for this lowly reporter to grasp, preemptively zapping and tweaking social service budgets like home heating oil and nutrition support for the poor in order to protect such social spending over the long term from Republican budget hatchets. Who can say? Certainly he has demonstrated a talent for dodging and feinting. But his budget scalpel has cut into some tender zones so far (bear in mind that months of negotiation await the conclusion of this budget process). Sharp enough to alarm Catholic Relief Services President Ken Hackett and the U.S. bishops who complain the budget “makes over 26 percent in cuts for poverty-focused international assistance, but only 2.6 percent in cuts overall.”

“Shared sacrifice is one thing; it is another to make disproportionate cuts in programs that serve the most vulnerable. It is morally unacceptable for our nation to balance its budget on the backs of the poor at home and abroad,” Hackett and Bishop Howard J. Hubbard of Albany, chairman of the USCCB Committee on International Justice and Peace, write in a letter to Congress. It’s fair to wonder if these proposed cutbacks mean the United States is planning to simply give up on its Millennium Development Goals’ commitments.

Hubbard and Hackett write that assistance that helps poor and vulnerable people abroad is a moral imperative. “Foreign assistance is not simply an optional commitment; it is a moral responsibility to assist “the least of these.”

In another love note to Congress the bishop reminded elected officials that “decisions on how to allocate opportunities and burdens in setting budget priorities are more than economic policies — they are significant moral choices.”

The budget is a moral document of our priorities the bishops say. Right now we are on the verge of cutting minor assistance to the most poor, Great Lakes cleanup and foreign aid to developing nations, but are continuing a historic escalation of defense spending. Can we really be happy with that?

Here's the National Priorities Project Take.

Catholic Charities USA's Father Fred Snyder says trim waste not social services.