Alaska Democratic Sen. Mark Begich and several religious leaders gathered on the steps of a Capitol Hill church Monday afternoon to decry — in moral terms — House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) proposed fiscal 2012 budget, which will be voted on by the House at the end of this week.
Begich, a first-term lawmaker and former Anchorage mayor who was recently tapped by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to serve on the Democratic leadership team, was joined Monday at the Church of the Reformation on East Capitol Street by the Rev. Derrick Harkins, pastor of the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church; Rabbi Jack Moline of the Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria; and Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of a Catholic social justice lobbying group.
The four made a familiar Democratic case against the Republican budget plan – that it unfairly burdens those who rely on the government’s social welfare safety net and does not include tax increases for the wealthiest earners – but couched their argument in moral terms.
“The women, children and seniors who would suffer most from Paul Ryan’s cowardly budget plan are not responsible for our deficit,” Campbell said. “It’s wrong to make them bear the burden while the wealthiest Americans and powerful special interests that wrecked our economy continue to exploit our society without consequence.”
Interestingly, that’s a tactic that’s been employed by those on each side of the debate. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) used a February speech at the National Religious Broadcasters convention in Nashville to cast the country’s $14.1 trillion debt as not just a “mortal threat” to America, but “also a moral threat.”
“It is immoral to bind our children to as leeching and destructive a force as debt,” Boehner said at the time. “It is immoral to rob our children’s future and make them beholden to China. No society is worthy that treats its children so shabbily.”
In other words: Republicans have argued that it’s immoral to saddle future generations with trillions of dollars in debt, while Democrats argue that it’s immoral to balance the budget through the elimination of programs designed to aide society’s most vulnerable.
Asked Monday about those two conflicting arguments, Begich said that “no one disagrees” with Boehner’s point on deficit reduction, but “when you’re done with the budget, it should reflect” one’s moral principles and vision.
“If you’re just giving millionaires more tax breaks, giving corporate America — the big corporations — more tax breaks, and then throwing over the edge of the ship seniors and children, I think, yeah, it’s a moral argument,” Begich said. “And the issue is what is your budget going to look like. I know when I was mayor and we put our budget together, it reflected the community needs and the future. If all you’re doing is arguing over elimination of programs but still adding money for billionaires and millionaires, there’s something wrong with the priorities, and that’s what the debate will be over.”
Harkins, pastor of Washington’s 19th Street Baptist Church, said that he, too, agreed with Boehner that deficit reduction is a moral issue.
“But it has to be enveloped in the larger frame of doing the best for the most,” Harkins added. “That’s what makes America America. I think that (Boehner) needs to continue the conversation a little further than he has, because if all one does is focus on the deficit to the exclusion of the harm that’s done when cuts are made in places where they really do harm, we don’t strengthen ourselves as a country in that way.”
Meanwhile, Boehner, in his February speech, also made the case that congressional leaders have a moral imperative to tackle the issue of entitlement reform.
“Our budget, under the leadership of our Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, will specifically deal with entitlement reform,” Boehner said. “To not address entitlement programs, as is the case with the budget the president has put forward, would be an economic and moral failure.”
What’s your take – is the morality argument one that can (and ought to) be made in the ongoing budget battle? Can either side claim the moral high ground? The comments section is open for business.