As we enter into a new season of debate over the budget, I am distressed by the cynicism about government that has spread through the American people. Recent polls indicate that the approval rate for Congress has fallen to 10 percent, the lowest ever. Much of this comes from seemingly pervasive bickering and dysfunction.
I spend a lot of time urging members of Congress from both parties to take actions that are important to hungry people. I have a higher view of Congress than most because I find that nearly all members of Congress are good, caring people. Even when I disagree sharply with them, I find that most are doing what they think is right.
Based on this belief, I recently joined 5,000 pastors from across the country in calling on members of Congress to maintain a "circle of protection" around programs that help hungry and poor people. We sent a letter thanking them for protecting vulnerable people during this period of draconian budget slashing.
Over the past three years, an effort to reduce the federal deficit has overshadowed the people who are most in need of assistance. The most conservative wing of the House of Representatives has uncompromisingly pushed for deep and disproportionate cuts to programs that help poor people. However, by fits and starts, Congress has come to agreement with the president on about $2.5 trillion in deficit reduction without gutting anti-poverty programs. Cuts to programs for poor people have come to about $25 billion -- just one percent of the radical cuts that the House has proposed.
But deeper cuts to vital programs are inevitable unless Congress commits to work together and with the president on a sensible plan. When negotiations between Congress and the president broke down earlier this year, sequestration went into effect, triggering automatic budget cuts. Everybody agrees that sequestration is a meat-axe approach to budgeting, chopping without consideration of the human consequences.
These cuts are doing real harm -- 70,000 fewer children will be enrolled in Head Start this year, for example, and millions of meals to housebound seniors have been eliminated. Unless sequestration is replaced, deeper cuts will continue each year and fewer vulnerable people will be protected.
Just as our pastoral letter arrives in Speaker John Boehner's office, House Republicans -- again spurred by their far-right caucus -- have gone on a spree of truly cruel cuts.
The farm bill, although not directly affected by sequestration, has been targeted for severe funding reductions, which will increase hunger. During the economic crisis of 2008, hunger surged in the United States -- but it has not since increased because Congress and the president have steered away from cutting the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps), which is funded through the farm bill.
This summer, the House Agriculture Committee proposed a farm bill that would cut $20 billion from SNAP. That is equivalent to eliminating half of all the charitable food distribution that churches and food banks provide during a 10-year period. But some House members wanted even deeper cuts -- and the House finally passed a farm bill that doesn't include food assistance programs at all.
The House is also drafting appropriations bills that would simply shift cuts from defense to nondefense spending and continue sequestration. A House committee has approved a cut of 26 percent to development assistance programs that provide help and opportunity to extremely hungry and poor people around the world.
Such cold and uncompromising decisions contribute to low public approval of elected officials.
The nation is again approaching hard deadlines that will require our leaders to come to bipartisan agreement on budget matters. Failure would lead to government shutdown and, again, risk our nation's creditworthiness and economic recovery.
In the pastors' letter to congressional leaders and the president, we commit to praying for them and asking our congregations to do the same. It's not easy governing a country of 300 million people with competing interests and divisive political viewpoints.
As members of Congress return home for their August recess, we will be praying that God will give them wisdom. We will be urging them to put an end to brinksmanship and come to agreements on difficult issues. And we should all urge them to maintain a circle of protection around the programs that help hungry and poor people in our country and abroad.
Rev. David Beckmann is president of Bread for the World (www.bread.org).