Catholic News Service photo
A man who is panhandling holds an American flag in the financial district in San Francisco. The U.S. bishops say Congress should base budget decisions on whether they protect the poor, workers and families who are struggling in difficult economic times.
Catholic News Service photo
A man who is panhandling holds an American flag in the financial district in San Francisco. The U.S. bishops say Congress should base budget decisions on whether they protect the poor, workers and families who are struggling in difficult economic times.

WASHINGTON — The top Republican in the U.S. Congress defended his party's proposed deficit-cutting federal budget plan against concerns from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that it would hurt the poor and violate certain "moral criteria."

House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner argued that matters would worsen, with the government eventually unable to afford programs for the needy, unless it stops spending more money than it takes in.

Boehner, who is Catholic, acknowledged that the bishops have a "moral argument," but said, "I want them to take a bigger look."

"The bigger look is if we don't make decisions (to slash spending), these programs won't exist, and then they will really have something to worry about," Boehner said at his weekly news conference.

In defending the Republicans' proposed spending cuts, Boehner did not mention another option to help reduce the deficit - raising taxes, which his party opposes.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has expressed its concerns over proposed cuts in federal programs serving the country's poorest and most vulnerable people in a series of letters to congressional leaders since April 4 as debate over the fiscal year 2013 budget begins.

The letters from Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, Calif., chairman of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, and Bishop Richard Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace, urge Congress to draw a "circle of protection" around programs that serve "the least among us."

The letters were sent after the House of Representatives adopted on March 27 a $3.5 trillion budget resolution -- with a $600 billion deficit -- written by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. The plan calls for massive spending cuts in nonmilitary programs, turning Medicaid into a block grant program administered by the states, reshaping Medicare over the next decade, and simplifying the tax code by closing loopholes and lowering individual and corporate tax rates.

A common message in the letters focuses on the necessity of "shared sacrifice by all, including raising adequate revenues," the elimination of unnecessary military and other spending and fairly addressing long-term costs associated with health insurance and retirement costs.

The letters follow Sen. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) comments last week that his Catholic faith shaped the budget he authored. As chairman of the House Budget Committee, he also argued the budget is consistent with Catholic teachings.

In response to the bishops’ criticism, Ryan argued that by accelerating the debt crisis, President Obama’s policies will be more damaging to the poor.

“The president’s policies, by the administration’s own admission, accelerate a debt crisis, hurting the poor the first and the worst,” Ryan said in a statement to The Hill. He said his own budget “lifts this crushing burden of debt, repairs our broken safety net and tackles our generation’s defining challenge of ensuring opportunity for generations to come.”

Ryan’s budget aims to reduce the federal deficit almost entirely through spending cuts; it would cut about $5 trillion more than the president’s 2013 budget proposal. Democrats are pushing for tax increases to reduce the deficit in addition to spending cuts. Ryan’s plan also includes a proposal to revamp Medicare that would give future seniors the choice of opting out of the program in favor of private insurance.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., ranking Democrat on the labor, health and human services and education subcommittee, said the U.S. bishops, and Cardinal Dolan in particular, might do well to open a public campaign to protect programs aiding the country's poor.

The 22-year member of Congress cited the recent passage in the House of Representatives of the 2013 budget resolution that was written by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. She said the plan would be devastating to millions of out-of-work and low-income Americans.

DeLauro told CNS that the budget deserved as much attention from Cardinal Dolan and the nation's bishops as that being given in a two-week campaign in support of religious freedom June 21-July 4.

The bishops' Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty announced the "fortnight for freedom" April 12, saying American Catholics must resist unjust laws "as a duty of citizenship and an obligation of faith."

The ad hoc committee's statement cited several concerns affecting religious freedom including the Department of Health and Human Services' mandate that most health plans must include contraception, sterilization and some abortion-inducing drugs free of charge as well as efforts in several states to restrict the rights of churches to practice their faith in areas as diverse as assisting immigrants and the adoption of children.

Budget issues have been addressed several times since early March by the USCCB.

In a letter to the House Agriculture Committee, Bishop Blaire said the House-passed budget "fails to meet these moral criteria."

A summary of each letter follows.

— April 4 to the House Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies:

As one of the largest private providers of housing services for poor and vulnerable people, the Catholic community sees a growing need for assistance from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Cutting funds for housing programs "could cause thousands of individuals and families to lose their housing and worsen the hardship of thousands more in need of affordable housing."

The bishops urge the leaders to protect funding for housing for the elderly, people with disabilities, and people with AIDS; Veterans Affairs-supported housing; McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act programs; Section 8 rental assistance; and other programs that ensure safe and affordable housing for vulnerable Americans.

The bishops also repeated their concern about proposals to increase the minimum amount of rent that can be charged to families receiving housing assistance, saying very low-income families would be harmed, especially at a time when wages are stagnant and food and gas prices are rising.

— April 16 to the House Agriculture Committee:

A letter signed by Bishop Blaire urged the committee to "resist for moral and human reasons unacceptable cuts to hunger and nutrition programs."

Acknowledging that the committee is under instruction to cut $33.2 billion from agricultural programs, the USCCB urged Congress to "protect essential programs that serve poor and hungry people over subsidies that assist large and relatively well-off agricultural enterprises."

The letter pointed particularly to proposed cuts in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, and how such cuts will harm hungry children, poor families, vulnerable seniors and workers who cannot find work.

"These cuts are unjustified and wrong. If cuts are necessary, the committee should first look towards reducing and targeting commodity and subsidy programs that disproportionately go to large growers and agribusiness," Bishop Blaire wrote.

— April 16 to the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee for Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration and Related Agencies:

Support for 10 domestic and international food and nutrition programs that impact the lives of people worldwide was outlined in a two-page letter.

"Adequate nutrition is essential to protect human life and dignity. We urge support for just and sufficient funding for agriculture policies that serve hungry, poor and vulnerable people while promoting good stewardship of the land and natural resources," the bishops said.

They opposed cuts in domestic programs such as the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program; the Emergency Food Assistance Program for food storage and distribution grants in local communities; Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; Commodity Supplemental Food Program serving low-income seniors, pregnant and breastfeeding women and infants and children; Conservation Stewardship Program that helps farmers conserve and care for farmland; and Value Added Producer Grants that help farmers and ranchers develop new farm and food-related businesses to increase rural economic opportunity.

International programs cited as vital and undeserving of funding cuts include Title II Food Aid; the "safe box" provision to help chronically hungry communities build lasting agricultural capacity that minimizes the impact of severe weather and other catastrophes; and Local and Regional Procurement of food commodities to reduce food assistance costs and shorten delivery times. The bishops also called for increasing the amount of cash resources in the Title II program for nutrition education and other agricultural programs that increase the quality and amount of food that poor farmers produce.

— April 17 to the House Ways and Means Committee:

Bishop Blaire renewed the USCCB's "strong opposition to unfair proposals that would alter the child tax credit to exclude children of hard-working immigrant families."

The bishops have been longtime supporters of the credit because of its pro-work and pro-family orientation and for being "one of the most effective anti-poverty programs in our nation." In 2009 2.3 million people, including 1.3 million children, were kept out of poverty by the credit. Denying the credit to children of immigrants, the majority of whom are American citizens, would harm vulnerable children, increase poverty and "would not advance the common good," the letter said.

"To exclude these children who are American citizens from the child tax credit is unjust and wrong. We urge you to actively and publicly oppose such measures."