Budget critics: What would Jesus cut?

Immoral. That's what several religious groups are calling President Bush's latest budget. The charge has political ramifications. It threatens to undermine some of Mr. Bush's support from voters concerned with values. But it also raises a deep question: Can budgets be moral or immoral? Is that really how the nation's spending plan should be judged? This emerging challenge is turning the "values" debate on its head. Liberals are putting policy issues in moral terms. Conservatives are resisting it.

"Budgets are moral documents, providing a framework for laying out priorities and values," says Yonce Shelton, public policy director for Call to Renewal, a progressive, faith-based organization in Washington. His biggest complaint: The administration is "trying to balance the budget on the backs of the poor," at the same time it is expanding tax cuts for the wealthy. "It's not a moral-based approach," he says.

Conservatives disagree.

An "ethical" budget calls for effective spending, says William Beach, an economist at the conservative Heritage Foundation. He calls it "disingenuous" and "ethically vacuous" to say budget cuts in ineffective programs are immoral without offering alternatives to such cuts.

In his State of the Union address early this month, Bush argued that the 150 programs he wants cut or axed "are not getting results, or duplicate current efforts, or do not fulfill essential priorities.... Taxpayer dollars must be spent wisely, or not at all."

Although not quarreling with the need for program efficiency, liberal critics do not accept the argument that the Bush cuts aim only at that efficiency goal.

"The Bush budget is not one of shared sacrifice," says Robert Greenstein, executive director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), a liberal think tank in Washington. "It maintains all the old tax cuts and adds new ones [$146 billion over 10 years] heavily tilted to the top," while slashing benefits for the poor.

Groups critical of the proposed cuts forecast widespread social damage. They say some 300,000 people will lose food-stamp benefits, a cut in child-care assistance will affect 300,000 children, large reductions in housing assistance will leave more people with disabilities and AIDS out in the cold, and 600,000 will be hit by cuts in a supplemental nutrition program. The list goes on.

Whenever the White House proposes budget cuts, those affected lobby hard to stop them in Congress. The nation has a long tradition of liberal religious bodies pushing for low-income housing, more funding for Head Start, and many other programs that benefit poor people.

But the new budget, by eliminating or cutting so many programs, may be expanding such concerns deeper into the religious spectrum.

The "immoral" label is one of the biggest political risks Republicans face with the budget, says Stanley Collender, a budget expert with Financial Dynamics Business Communications.

Last week, Mr. Greenstein spoke to religious groups in New York and Washington on the "moral standards" in the budget. Early in the month, CBPP and the Children's Defense Fund hosted a press conference on the same topic, featuring a few church leaders - Bishop Peter Weaver, president of the bishops' council of the United Methodist church; James Forbes, senior minister of Riverside Church (New York); and Barbara Shaw, president of overseas missionary activities of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.

To Greenstein, the Bush budget is not moral because it hits the politically weak, that is, the poor and disadvantaged, and benefits the powerful, the companies, and the well-to-do who make campaign contributions.

Moral issues extend to the president's "faith-based initiative," Mr. Shelton maintains. The budget provides an extra $150 million for that program, aimed at encouraging churches and other charitable groups to help those in need. But, he says, the budget then dumps onto these organizations the burdens arising from tens of billions of dollars of cuts in programs for the poor, the handicapped, and those otherwise disadvantaged.

"Churches are part of the equation; but not the whole equation," says Shelton, a former supporter of the initiative who indicates his continued support for welfare reform and some of the White House views on marriage and family. "They are asking us to take the place of good [governmental] social policy."

He and others from his group - as well as a sister organization, Sojourners - have met with Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress. They have launched a nationwide "grassroots network" and plan a bus tour across the country to put pressure on Congress "to raise awareness of poverty as a religious and electoral issue."

"Spending more money on nuclear warheads and tax cuts that benefit the rich is not a strategy that would be affirmed by the biblical prophets," states one message to Sojourner supporters. It urges them to e-mail complaints to Congress.

Another "moral" issue is generational.

"I doubt there is any person who can stand up and say this [budget] reflects my values or the country's values," says Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a nonpartisan group. That's because the huge deficits extending years into the future mean this generation is passing on bigger debts to future generations. In effect, the budget says, " 'I want the goods and want someone else to bear the cost.' That is the ultimate in immoral action ... to ask your kids to pay for your spending," she adds.

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