Preferential option for the Pentagon?

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Article Social Justice War and Peace
As the debt-ceiling debate stumbles toward resolution, this May 2005 column about the 2006 federal budget shows how little things have changed when it comes to our priorities.

The 2006 federal budget is slightly less than six gazillion pages of eye-straining statistics, outlandish bureaucratic acronyms, and unspeakable Orwellian babble, bound in no-nonsense government blue and suitable for months of obsessive home study or as a sturdy bludgeon against domestic intruders.

It is a statement of national priorities, a blueprint of federal stewardship, a vision of what government will be and a glimmer of what it could be. It is more than a fiscal paperweight; it is, the U.S. bishops like to remind us, a moral statement. This year the president's proposed budget statement is apparently, "What, me worry?"

Political leaders pretend the budget's jaw-dropping commitment to defense is sacrosanct, but hard questions need to be asked.

Left out of this budget is any appropriation for the war in Iraq or a set-aside to bankroll the president's privatization of Social security, while tax cuts that have turned historic surpluses into record deficits are being written off as "cost neutral." This budget whistles past the national health care crisis as if the 45 million people without access to decent medical care were a statistical irrelevancy instead of a social meltdown. But the biggest feint at nonchalance penciled in by the composers of the 2006 budget is the proposition that the nation can get a handle on its spiraling deficit and breathtaking debt by reducing outlays on its most vulnerable citizens.

You remember that crowd, the same folks who have already endured a decade of social reassignment as the "deserving poor" under Ronald Reagan and the era of "personal responsibility" and welfare reform under Bush the First and Bill the Clinton, the same folks who have been forced to shoulder the rhetorical blame for the nation's many fiscal misadventures from the end of the War on Poverty to the beginning of the wars on terror. Now, much like exhausted, exasperated volunteers sent out to face a second or third tour in Iraq, these folks are learning that once again the federal government plans to balance its books on their backs.

Showing a preferential option for the Pentagon and the nation's wealthiest, the 2006 budget calls for $132 billion of corporate welfare in federally funded "research and development" projects and a diminishing tax burden on the nation's wealthiest, while massive defense outlays continue unabated, reaching $492 billion by 2010. But well-tested programs in housing, job training, early childhood education, and more aimed at alleviating the worst deprivations of poverty in America are marked for at least a 14 percent reduction by 2010 and $214 billion in cuts over the next five years.

Supporters of the across-the-board cutbacks on social and environmental programs note that there is a war on, after all, and that during this guns-before-butter emergency period, sacrifices will have to be made. Good enough, but by whom?

The renaissance of deficit spending cannot be laid at the feet of the nation's poor. Our reborn budget distress is essentially a problem of reduced revenue owing to two rounds of tax cuts in 2001 and 2003. The lion's share of those cuts went to the nation's top income brackets, but the fiscal damage they inflicted will be a cost borne by all citizens and, it appears, their grandchildren. Perhaps the common good could best endure wartime sacrifices by recovering some of that lost revenue instead of renouncing communal responsibilities to the country's most vulnerable citizens, particularly its children, who are likely to be hardest hit by budget cuts.

Even as political leaders pretend the 2006 budget's jaw-dropping commitment to defense and homeland security is somehow sacrosanct--an attitude that itself is a scandal--hard questions need to be asked about the priorities and the domestic and international course it sets. Legitimate concerns persist about the strategic efficacy and moral hazards offered up by the nation's horizonless War on Terror, including how much it is really going to cost and how it should, in justice, be paid for and in justice executed.

The church teaches that a fundamental moral assessment of our nation's budget policy begins by asking how it affects the lives and dignity of those most in need. By that moral measure, the 2006 budget begs to be busted.

When it's our turn to ask: "Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?" I, for one, don't want to hear the King--and I'm not talking Elvis here--reply: "Don't you remember? I was in the fine print of that 2006 budget."

This article appeared in the May 2005 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 70, No. 5, page 29).