Who gets the bill?

Dear Congress:

There is a $24 billion bill to pay for the government shutdown and the fight over the debt ceiling.

We, the people, would like to know to whom we should send the bill.

Do we send it to all of you, who refused to do your jobs?

Do we send it to the House of Representatives, which passed arcane rules so that only the Speaker of the House John Boehner or House Majority Leader Eric Cantor could hold a vote to re-open the government?

Do we send it to Sen. Ted Cruz, who somehow thinks that he’s won some sort of victory while at the same time costing us TWENTY-FOUR BILLION DOLLARS?

We, the people, did not want the government shut down.

We, the people – or at least, those of us who understood from the get-go that raising the debt ceiling was not giving the government permission to spend more money wildly, but rather meant that this nation could pay the bills for spending that Congress already approved – are not amused.

No, we are not.

We do not elect you, members of Congress, to go to Washington to act like 2-year-olds throwing temper tantrums.

We send you there to … wait for it … work!

And these past few weeks, you, the members of Congress, have not done your jobs.

Instead, you have traded pot-shots, you have made ridiculous claims, you have ignored the very basics of how to repeal a law, and overall, you have showed that in general, you are not interested in doing your jobs.

Instead, you have run up a $24 billion bill that you are refusing to even acknowledge, much less pay.

And now there are some of you threatening to do this all over again come the new year.

All because some of you can’t get your way.

Mr. Cruz, the Republican Senator from Texas, apparently flunked civics in school, because he still believes he can hold the nation hostage until he gets rid of the Affordable Care Act. I’m not certain why he wants to do away with this, except for the fact that, oh, wait, his state is one of the worst in caring for its poorest people.

Perhaps he, and others who believe as he does, need to be told again: Congress passed the ACA. The President signed it into law. The nation then re-elected the President, rejecting the man who claimed he would, by executive order, undo the act. The Supreme Court then upheld the law.

What part of “it is the law” do these people not understand?

Is the problem that this act will benefit the poorest people, the ones who do not have health insurance right now, and whose employers cannot, or will not, provide health insurance for them? Or is the problem that you, the members of Congress elected to serve the people of this nation, do not care for 45 million of those people?

Either way, please realize this: The Affordable Care Act is the law. Deal with it.

And stop running up bills that no one is prepared to pay.

Because there is a $24 billion bill that needs to be paid.

Who gets it?

Who will pay?

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What, I wonder, did the poor ever do to the rich?

Why, I ask, do the rich seem so hell-bent on hurting the poor?

What, I want to know, will it take to end this seemingly endless war on the poor and help people out of poverty so that all of us – and I do mean all of us – will benefit?

As I write this, the government has just shut down – all because a small group of people who claim to be representatives of the people refuse to recognize reality. The House of Representatives repeatedly is trying to get rid of the Affordable Health Care Act, despite the fact that Congress passed the law, the President signed it, the Supreme Court upheld it, and the people say they want it. (A note on those polls: If the act is referred to as “Obamacare,” some polls show that the American people don’t want it. But when those same people are asked about the act by its formal name, they want it. Just goes to show how polls can be skewed so easily.)

This same group of Republicans in the House also has voted to slash the food stamp program – officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – over the next 10 years.

Again, there is no recognition of reality, no recognition that people in this country need help because the jobs that do exist often do not pay enough to feed a family. Approximately 47 million Americans receive SNAP, and of those, 72 percent of those families include children – children! Never mind the fact that most of the recipients are working Americans!

Somewhere, someone decided that saving that $40 billion over 10 years was more important than feeding people.

Somewhere, someone decided that balancing the budget – as if $4 billion a year in $3 trillion dollar budget would do that – is far more important than helping 4 million low-income Americans keep food on their table in 2014. Or 3 million additional Americans in 2015. Or another 3 million Americans in 2016 and every year thereafter for seven more years. Those are the numbers of people who will be cut off, if those mean-spirited folks in the House get their way.

Do the people who made this decisions realize that for the working poor, their wages are so low – so incredibly, insultingly low – that they can’t afford to feed and house their children?

And now, the latest insult: The government is shut down.

Oh, some portions are not shut down – those deemed necessary.

But most of the workers and contractors are not being paid, even those who are deemed necessary.

(Except, of course, for those folks in Congress, who still get their paychecks even when they are engaged in a massive attack on this country and its people.)

Which leads me to ask, once again, what did the poor ever do to the rich?

Make no mistake: The attacks on the poor in this country are relentless, as though being poor is a sin, a crime, or both. Testing welfare recipients for drug use – even when every shred of evidence says that only the smallest minority of them use drugs – is an insult at best. Don’t the powers that be in this country realize that it takes money to buy drugs?

Cutting off unemployment benefits – at the same time that the richest business owners are making more money than they ever could have dreamed of – is an insult.

Trying to defund the Affordable Health Care Act, which will benefit … wait … you guessed it … the poor, is an insult.

Shutting down the government just to make a point that makes no sense and which overwhelmingly affects the poor, is an insult.

In reality, each of those actions or attempted actions is an attack on the poor, meant not only to keep them in their place but to starve them, force them out of their homes and make damned sure that they will die of easily preventable and treatable illnesses.

What is going on in this country?

To those who say that poor people should work, I answer: Hire them! Create the damned jobs, pay a living wage, and we wouldn’t need to worry about the size of SNAP! If you’re not willing to do that, then be still!

To those who say that the poor shouldn’t get health care, I answer: You first! You give up your health care, and live with the worries of what one illness will do to your budget, and then – and only then – do you get to cut off health care for others. If you’re not willing to do that, then be still!

We are only in the first hours of the government shutdown. Already, its ripple effects are being felt. Go talk to the small business owners, who are watching their profits fall, because those workers who have been furloughed? They aren’t spending. Profits fall, more people get laid off, the economy reverts to recession and guess what happens next? SNAP soars! Brilliant move, eh?

Of course, the shutdown mainly affects the poor and the working class. The rich won’t have to worry, because they still have work, they still have paychecks, they still have investments.

But … if this shutdown continues for even a few days, watch what happens with those same rich folks: Their investments are going to fall precipitously. Their profits then will fall, which in turn will cause their investments to fall even more, which in turn …

See how this works? It doesn’t make sense, yet some ideologues believe this is how you run a country.

Well, I have news for those folks: This is not how you lead a country. It is how you lead a country back into a recession.

Complete intransigence on the part of a small group of people who haven’t gotten their way and who refuse to recognize reality is hurting the vast majority of people in this country who are poor.

There’s no way around it:

The rich in this country are engaged in a war on the poor.

Who did nothing to deserve this … except to be poor.

What is going on this country?

 

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He has told you, O mortal, what is good;

and what does the Lord require of you

but to do justice,

to love kindness

and to walk humbly with your God?

(Micah 6:8)

In just one week, the U.S. government could come to a crashing halt.

Really.

All because our Senators and Representatives have not bothered to do their jobs.

Since receiving, in January 2010more than a year ago, mind you – President Obama’s proposed budget, Congress has managed to pass no spending bills. That’s right. Not one. All our representatives have managed to do is pass continuing resolutions, leaving for tomorrow what they could have done today – or yesterday, for that matter.

I’ve been trying to figure out what will happen next week, when the government does shut down. You can go on-line and find all kinds of analyses about who will be considered essential (um, our representatives, the leaders of government, claim this for themselves) and who will not be (um, those would be the people who actually do the work of government). The people who make sure Americans get paid? Non-essential. The people who make sure contractors get paid? Non-essential. The people who fill out the forms that ensure that Americans receive their benefits? Non-essential.

This list goes on and on, but you get the idea. In the minds of our representatives, they are essential. Most every else? Not so much.

So I wonder, as I have many times before, how our representatives are meeting God’s injunction to us? How is shutting down the government over ideology doing justice? How is it loving kindness?

\And how, pray tell, could anyone think that this massive power play – mirrored by the one playing out in Wisconsin right now – has anything to do with walking humbly with God? (Posturing instead of caring for the people entrusted to them shows a distinct lack of humility, I believe.)

In all this grandstanding, no real efforts are being made to trim the budget or lessen the deficit, because only small portions of the budget are actively in play. And the parts that have been put into play? Why, those would be the parts in which the poor, the needy and the forgotten are cared for. Those would be the parts in which women are treated with respect and dignity, in which children who have had the bad fortune to be born into poverty are fed, in which our veterans are cared for by a grateful nation that thanks them for their service. Those are the parts the so-called fiscal conservatives are chopping. Defense? Never on the table. Poor people who don’t contribute to campaigns? They are being ignored and forgotten.

Jim Wallis over at Sojourners wrote an excellent article yesterday on the God’s Politics blog (click here or look under “Articles you should read” for the link). In it, he points out that all this posturing is not about money, not about deficits, but about politics, ideology and hypocrisy.

In closing, Mr. Wallis writes:

“Let me offer a word to those who see this critique as partisan. I’ve had good friendships with Republican members of Congress, but not the kind who get elected by their party anymore. But let’s be clear, when politicians attack the poor, it is not partisan to challenge them; it is a Christian responsibility.

“This is wrong, this is unjust, this is vile, and this must not stand. Next week, thanks to your support, look for a full-page ad in Politico signed by faith leaders and organizations across the country that asks Congress a probing question: “What would Jesus cut?” These proposed budget cuts are backwards, and I don’t see how people of faith can accept them. And we won’t.”

Our elected leaders are not doing their jobs. Instead, they are playing games – and getting paid, handsomely, to do so.

Just as we want these leaders to listen closely to what God has to say through the prophet Micah, so we need to listen as well. If we want justice done, if we truly love kindness, and if we are willing to walk humbly with our God, then we need to step up as well. That’s what has been happening in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana for the past several days: The people have turned out in force, claiming their voices, claiming their rights.

If we want to avoid another government shutdown fiasco – which, by the way, will ultimately cost us billions, according to estimates – then we need to speak up. We need to make sure our Representatives and Senators understand that it is time for them to set aside their agendas and ideologies and do the right thing, which is to be responsible, to be caring, and to serve the people entrusted to them.

Shutting down the government serves no purpose other than to harm those most in need, while those with the most suffer not at all.

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The art of the possible

“Politics,” I said to a 20-something friend recently, “is the art of the possible. It is not evil. It is about how we work together to do the most good for the greatest number of people at any given time.”

The 20-something was surprised.

“What did you say ‘politics’ is?” she asked.

“It is the art of the possible,” I told her. “I may not get everything I want, and you may not get everything you want, but in the end, if it is done correctly, if we are faithful, together we achieve the best result possible at that moment.”

The 20-something was excited to learn this. She had never thought of politics in that light before, and frankly, I’m not surprised. She’s grown up in an age when politics is so partisan that it’s hard to remember that both sides of any given argument are even discussing the same thing, much less striving to work together.

As I watch what is happening in this country right now – particularly the budget debates taking place in Congress and the union-government showdown in Wisconsin – I wonder if those who are professional politicians remember the definition of their jobs, to care for the people.

Instead of standing up and taking responsibility for what they have done, veteran lawmakers in Congress pretend they have had nothing to do with the last 10 years of running up the deficit to the point that it endangers all that we do, and now threaten to slash and burn not just the budget, but many of the good things our government does.

Newcomers to Congress act as though they have no responsibility for any program that existed before they arrived inWashington, and that they do not care for the outcome of any action they take … as long as the deficit is reduced.

Now, threats swirl throughout Washington about another federal government shutdown, which we haven’t seen since the mid-1990s. No one seems concerned about the economic impact of a shutdown, either on the government, on the people of this land who would be directly affected, or even on the hot-dog vendors on the street, who would lose their income as well.

The Speaker of the House, when told that his recommended budget actions would mean the loss of hundreds of thousands of federal jobs – this at a time when the unemployment rate is still at 9 percent – shrugs his shoulders and says, “So be it.” (Does the Speaker know that this is the English translation of “Amen,” which comes from the Hebrew Scriptures? Is he aware that in saying, “So be it,” he is endorsing “job-killing,” which he claims to be fighting?)

I think it is safe to say that every single one of us in this country knows that we have to do something about the budget and the deficit. But this slash-and-burn approach has nothing to do with the art of the possible.

Instead of working together to achieve the best possible results, both sides seemed locked in a battle of egos, with the American people suffering the consequences.

How does intransigence fulfill the art of the possible? What good does it do to continuously say, “Read my lips”? (Doesn’t that remind you of children on the playground, saying, “Am too! Am not!”)

Leaders do not lay down ultimatums while simultaneously refusing to listen to anyone. Leaders make the hard decisions necessary to care for the most people – that, after all, is government’s purpose, to make secure the lives of the people.

There’s a hard-and-fast deadline coming up that means that something has to be done, and soon. If our representatives bothered to work together, they could achieve the possible.

We know that is possible to cut spending, to balance the budget, to lower the deficit, because all of that happened in the Clinton administration. Of course, first we had to go through that shutdown during that same administration.

So what would it take to move from stubborn “Heads-I-win-tails-you-lose” gamesmanship that serves no one to a dance that actually will lead to the best possible solutions for everyone?

How much longer will it take for everyone to realize that all things indeed are possible – but only when we remember to follow the instructions we have received from God, and not from polls, not from lobbyists, not from people more concerned with advancing themselves at the costs of others?

Is there waste in the federal budget? Absolutely. Some of the rules are so convoluted that of course we are paying too much to implement them.

But it is not faithful, to God or to the people, to slash and burn simply to make a point, or to get back at someone  you don’t like.

This country right now is faced with the ultimate opportunity to achieve the possible, to work together for the good of the people.

After all, isn’t that why those in office ran for office? So they could care for the people of this land?

McClatchy-Tribune New Service, 2011

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