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Boehner Plan Dumps Long-Standing Protection for the Poor

Yesterday’s Washington Post described an important and welcome development:  a coalition of Christian groups is urging the President and Congress to shield poor people from budget cuts in the debt-ceiling debate and other deficit-reduction packages.

Unfortunately, the article cites David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, as saying that while both House Speaker Boehner’s plan and Senate Majority Leader Reid’s plan call for deep, unspecified spending cuts that would likely hurt the poor, the Boehner plan appears to exempt “means-tested” programs like Medicaid and food stamps from the automatic, across-the-board cuts that it would impose in certain budgetary circumstances.  But David — a dedicated moral leader for whom I have great admiration — was given confusing information about the Boehner plan.  The truth is the reverse of what the article reports him as saying.

For 26 years, all budget legislation that would trigger across-the-board cuts if Congress fails to meet a fiscal target has exempted the basic low-income (or “means-tested”) entitlement programs from those cuts.  The Gramm-Rudman-Hollings laws of 1985 and 1990, the deficit reduction agreement of 1990, and the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 — all bipartisan pieces of legislation — included that exemption.  So did last year’s “pay-as-you-go” law, which requires Congress to offset the cost of new tax cuts or increases in entitlement programs so they don’t increase the deficit.  Congress has never enacted a law with an across-the-board cut mechanism that subjects core assistance for the poor to these cuts.

But in the last few weeks, House Republicans have advanced two major pieces of legislation that would do just that.  Both the “Cut, Cap, and Balance Act,” which the House passed last week, and the new Boehner debt-ceiling proposal drop all of the low-income exemptions that have been part of every previous across-the-board cut mechanism since 1985.

And, in an exercise in political cynicism, both of these bills add an exemption — for payments to Medicare providers – that was not part of the previous laws.  This enables the bill’s authors to claim they are protecting Medicare, even as they subject those living below the poverty line to the risk of automatic cuts that would push them even deeper into poverty.  (To be sure, these two measures do not protect Medicare — or Social Security — from being cut by Congress to meet the extremely austere budget targets the bills erect; they only protect those programs from being cut automatically if the targets are not adhered to.)

So, kudos to the new religious coalition.  They have their work cut out for them.  The move by House leaders to drop the long-standing bipartisan exemption for programs for the poor from automatic cuts, even as they create other new exemptions, is the latest evidence of how badly needed this new coalition is.