Monday, December 16, 2013

What’s in Congress’ budget deal, and what isn’t?

House Budget Chairman Ryan and Senate Budget Chairman
Patty Murray announce the budget deal
With great aplomb, the media has been in a frenzy to report the new and seemingly unprecedented progress of Congressional budget talks.  Indeed, last week the House overwhelmingly approved (332-94) a two-year budget blueprint that will set the stage for the final weeks of negotiation at the start of the New Year.  The Members of the House who opposed the deal are, for the most part, on the far right or the far left.   The Senate will take up the measure this week, and while it has a steeper slope to climb in that chamber, it will likely pass there before the adjournment of the 1st session of the 113th Congress.

But what is actually in the deal?  And what is not?

First, this is NOT a funding bill.  It is a budget blueprint that essentially takes the place of the annual Budget Resolutions for Fiscal Year (FY) 2014 and 2015.  These Resolutions are usually passed no later than April 15th of the year (April 2014 for the FY15 budget).  Congress must still act on spending bills by January 15th to avoid another government shutdown.

So, what does the budget deal do?
  • It makes it much more likely that Congress will reach spending deals and avoid a government shutdown in January.
  • It is also more likely that FY2015 budget negotiations will proceed in the normal order, starting early next year.
  • It shrinks the sequester (across-the-board spending cuts) by $45 billion in 2014 and $18 billion in 2015. 
    • This year’s $45 billion increase will be split evenly between defense and non-defense discretionary programs (2015 increases will be split evenly also).
    • The mandatory programs affected by sequester (including Medicare), on the other hand, see the length of their cuts extended for two additional years, in 2022 and 2023 (i.e. more cuts in the long-term to pay for these short-term increases).
  • It means that appropriators in January will be able to put some funds back into the programs that serve the most vulnerable, like Head Start and Housing Vouchers.
  • It continues to protect the Defense department from bearing its full share of spending cuts by restoring some of its funding, even after it was funded in FY2013 with an additional $20 billion above the original deal that created the sequester.
  • It raises some new revenue for the federal government by increasing some fees and other premiums, included the following item:
  • It increases retirement contributions for new federal employees, reducing their take-home pay, even after federal workers have already been seriously attacked in recent months through furloughs, sequester, and layoffs.

What does it NOT do?
  • It does not extend Unemployment Insurance (UI) benefits for the long-term unemployed (workers unemployed for 27 weeks or more, not including those who have given up looking for a job and “left” the labor force), which expire on Dec. 28. 
    • Without an act of Congress, 1.3 million workers will lose benefits only days after Christmas, and an additional 3.5 million workers will lose their safety net in the course of 2014. 
    • According to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO), allowing benefits to expire will harm the economy by resulting in up to 300,000 fewer jobs by the end of 2014.
    • The modest economic boost achieved by partially offsetting the sequester will essentially be counteracted by the expiration of UI for the long-term unemployed.
  • It does not do anything about the U.S. debt ceiling.
  • It does not make some of the deepest cuts to social and safety net programs, about which we have been concerned all year.
  • It does not close corporate tax loopholes or reform the tax code in order to achieve more economic equality.  

For a more in-depth analysis of the budget deal, see this paper released by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

In all, this deal is a mixed bag.  It could have been so much worse.  But we hoped that it would be so much better.  In the short term, it provides some stability and accomplishes some measure of bipartisanship.  It makes the brinksmanship of recent months all the less likely when Members of Congress return from the holiday recess, as so many Members, especially Leadership in the House, have agreed to these spending levels. It paves the way for final spending bills in early January that will avert the next government shutdown, whose deadline looms on January 15th.

But this bill fails U.S. workers who are and have been struggling to find jobs in a still languishing economy. It reduces take-home pay for federal workers who have already borne the brunt of furloughs and budget cuts. And it locks in the sequester for 2016-2023, so we will continue to have these funding battles every year for the foreseeable future.

In all, it is positive sign that Members of Congress from across the aisle came to the same table and negotiated a compromise -- but this is a low bar. It is a very small step in the right direction, and the Senate should pass it.  But we can do so much better for this nation and for each other.

Farm Bill Update from NSAC

Last week, we posted an update on the Farm Bill that focused largely on the Nutrition section of the bill. On Friday, the National Sustainable Agriculture blog had a helpful piece on of our other concerns in Farm Bill negotiations.  Read it all here or see the Farm Bill excerpts below:

Farm Bill and Budget Deal Moving Forward

December 13th, 2013

Farm Bill

Behind closed door action on the farm bill this week did not yield the expected announcement of an agreed upon framework, but did seem to push closer toward a final package.  There has been a very noticeable uptick in discussions and decision making on numerous issues that had, in earlier negotiations, been left open.  And by most accounts, budget estimates for the emerging commodity title of the farm bill have just been completed that suggest they are close to their overall spending and deficit reduction goals for the commodity subsidy portion of the farm bill.

Negotiations are expected to continue next week, even with the House having left for the holidays, with the goal of having everything ready for a formal meeting of the conference committee on January 8 or 9.  At that time, the conferees will vote an any issues that have not been settled behind closed doors, and then vote to adopt the final conference report.  At this point in time, that is expected to be a one-and-done meeting of the conferees.
To the best of our knowledge, some major issues remain open and under active debate.  Those include:
  • commodity program payment limit reform (including closing the loopholes that allow farms to collect unlimited subsidies) that is included in both bills, yet still faces backroom opposition by anti-reform forces;
  • nationwide sodsaver protection (crop insurance reform to reduce subsidized destruction of grasslands) included in the Senate bill;
  • an assault on fair market competition in the livestock sector that would eliminate most of USDA’s authority to maintain a fair and competitive market and to protect the rights of farmers and ranchers, an anti-farmer provision included in the House bill;
  • reversing consumer-right-to-know country of origin labeling for meat, also included in the House bill; and
  • the King amendment, another House provision, that would curtail the rights of states to regulate food, agriculture, and natural resources.
Some of those, if still unresolved after next week, could possibly go to a public vote when the conferees meet in January.  We expect some of these to be worked out next week, eliminating the need for specific votes.  Other unresolved issues might also be added to the list of issues requiring votes.

It appears that the big issues that have taken up much of the time in the so-called gang of four negotiations between the chairs and ranking members of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees are close to finished.  That includes the widely reported, though still not officially confirmed, cut to the SNAP or food stamp program of $8-9 billion over the next 10 years.  All or nearly all of the reduction is reportedly coming from forcing states to give low-income families receiving heating assistance more money before they can use that heating benefit as a deduction to qualify for a higher SNAP benefit.  The food stamp title of the bill is also expected to include some job training pilot projects in lieu of the House-passed work requirement.

It also includes the new commodity program that would give grain and oilseed producers a choice between revenue protection payments or counter-cyclical payments.  Both will be based on an updated version of historic “base” acres and will not be based on actual planted acres in the future.

Assuming a final bill gets mostly wrapped up next week and is then presented to the conferees on January 8 or 9, and assuming that after voting on the remaining open issues, a majority of the conferees support the final bill, it will then presumably be scheduled for floor action in the House and Senate later in January, about the same time, perhaps, as the final omnibus appropriations bill is also headed for floor action.

The latter must be passed by January 15 in order to avert a second government shutdown.  The farm bill, on the other hand, does not have such a hard deadline, but will have the threat of antiquated permanent commodity program law kicking in and causing market mayhem.  The House in fact this week passed a one-month extension of the old farm bill in order to defend themselves against charges of allowing those old farm programs to kick in.  The Senate, wisely, is not taking up the extension, choosing instead to focus on getting the new farm bill finished and passed.  A farm bill extension back on October 1, when the old farm bill expired, would have been a positive thing.  But at this point in time, it is too late to be helpful, and could seriously harm the momentum that is building to get the new farm bill finished.

The vote on a final farm bill could turn out to be a close vote, and for sure will require substantial Democratic votes to pass.  Aware of that reality, and upset that the budget deal did not include an extension of unemployment compensation benefits, some Democratic leaders are pushing to use a portion of the savings to be generated by the farm bill to offset additional unemployment benefits.  Benefits otherwise expire at the end of this year for many of the long-term unemployed.  Whether that play moves forward or not will depend in part on how many Republican votes can be rallied to support passage of the final farm bill.

It will be a busy week next week, with a Senate vote on the budget deal, with appropriators getting to work on the final spending bills for this year as soon as the Senate passes the budget, and with intense work on the details of all the titles of the farm bill.  Then everyone will depart from the Hill, go home and drink lots of eggnog, and come back for what is shaping up to be a momentous January.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Moral Mondays and the movement to break boundaries

Moral Mondays
North Carolina civil disobedience movement recalls, reaffirms Mandela’s legacy
Published by the Presbyterian News Service
by Emily Enders Odom, Communications Associate 

Members of Salem and New Hope presbyteries gathered on
Moral Monday. From left to right: Alice Geils Nord, Bernie
 Nord, Bob Brizendine and Paula Applegate. 
—Mindy Douglas
Every Monday for the past eight months, like clockwork, the Rev. Frank Dew has sounded his rallying cry across the social media landscape.

“Let's go to Raleigh!’ reads a representative post to the Salem Presbytery pastors’ Facebook group June 23. “Leaving at 3:00 pm…for Moral Monday! What is happening in Raleigh is not who we are! We are better than that!”

Dew, pastor of New Creation Community Presbyterian Church in Greensboro, N.C., and chaplain at Greensboro Urban Ministry, an ecumenical outreach agency, was one of Salem Presbytery’s key leaders in the “Moral Monday” protests, a statewide civil disobedience movement.

The North Carolina NAACP-led Moral Monday protests were organized in April to fight against cuts to social programs, education reforms and changes to voting laws in the state.  

Last week, North Carolina NAACP President the Rev. William Barber, II, and 11 others were found guilty of second-degree trespassing and violating building rules while protesting in April at the state legislature, according to a Dec. 4 article by the Associated Press. 

Dew himself was arrested as part of the third and largest group of protesters June 3.

“As a lifelong resident of North Carolina, I no longer recognize our state,” he said. “Although over my lifetime I have seen slow but steady progress toward social justice, during this last legislative session I have seen our state turn back the clock in terms of voting rights, education funding, environmental concerns, health care (not expanding Medicaid), worker’s rights (not extending unemployment benefits) and the elimination of the Racial Justice Act, which allowed Death Row inmates to appeal based on racially selected juries. I believe that the Moral Monday protests have helped shine a light on these changes that the people of this state will remember come 2014.” 

The Rev. J. Herbert Nelson, II, director of the PC(USA)’s Office of Public Witness (OPW) in Washington, D.C. — himself no stranger to being arrested for acts of civil disobedience — also took part in the Moral Monday protests, which have spread across the state to other North Carolina cities since the movement began.

“I attended the Asheville, N.C., Moral Monday in August after preaching at a youth conference in Montreat,” Nelson said. “Moral Monday is a powerful model for social and transformative change in a period when both individual and collective human rights are being suppressed. I have known Rev. Barber and worked with him for several years while serving as a pastor and community leader in North Carolina. He is a great critical and strategic thinker about issues regarding social change.” 

Nelson acknowledged that the organizing strategy behind Moral Mondays shares some key similarities with the model for the OPW. “Of course our specific objectives are different, but framing the movement for social justice is similar,” he said. “The OPW’s mission is about breaking boundaries established by the political order, organizing coalitions around a central theme rather than single issues, promoting basic issues that impact most people and building internal coalitions around those issues; that is, big tent versus silos.” 

The Rev. Arthur Canada, vice chair of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board and pastor of McClintock Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, N.C., has also participated in Moral Mondays. 

“We had a great turnout at Marshall Park in Charlotte this summer,” said Canada. “People speaking from a variety of different perspectives all came together to get the legislature to do what’s beneficial for the people, especially the poor. Charlotte Presbytery was well represented by a number of teaching elders, council leadership and committee members, including our presbytery’s [2013] moderator, Floretta Watkins.”
The North Carolina NAACP’s Barber was quoted in the Associated Press story as saying that a protest had been planned for later this month and a large rally scheduled in February that he hopes will draw thousands to Raleigh. “We’re going to be back,” he said. 

Nelson found the timing of a December event — a Moral Monday Service of Redemption at the State Capitol in Raleigh scheduled for Dec. 23 — to be especially significant.
“As the world celebrated the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela this past week, it is important to remember that many of the contextual struggles of human rights across this nation and around the globe are being challenged every day,” he said. “Our spiritual, moral and ethical focus as Presbyterian Christians must be centered on recapturing the essence of our social justice advocacy while finding new ways to resist the marginalization of more people in this country and around the globe. Moral Monday is one significant model in this effort.”

Dew said that he hopes the Forward Together Movement started by the North Carolina NAACP will cause some people “to take a second look at Church and Christianity.” 

“As we stand up and speak out with — and on behalf of — the poor and left out of our state, I hope people will see that this is what Christianity looks like,” he said.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Interfaith Call-in Day to Prevent Gun Violence

December 14th is the one-year anniversary of the tragedy in Newtown.  Since then, federal lawmakers have failed to make any progress toward curbing the scourge of gun violence in this nation.  We call on our leaders and say:

Enough pain. Enough despair. Enough injustice. Enough inaction.

In an invitation to Presbyterians to lift voices and take action, PC(USA) Director for Public Witness, the Reverend Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, said, "It is imperative that we pass common sense gun legislation to avoid more mass killings through gun violence in the United States. We must also be cognizant of the alarming numbers of persons killed on our streets by handguns each year. Our faith reminds us that the moral imperative to save lives supersedes our selfish need for false allusions of power witnessed by our over zealous desire to possess guns. The way of faith suggests that 'perfect love cast out fear.'" (I John 4:18)

Call now at 1-855-438-2982

When you call, tell your Senators:

  • 11,000 more Americans have been murdered with guns since the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary.
  • The majority of Americans support gun violence prevention measures and wish the Senate had passed the background check bill this year.
  • In memory of the children of Sandy Hook and the thousands of people killed by guns each year, support the bipartisan Manchin-Toomey background check compromise. It is a step in the right direction.

Let them know that you are calling as part of Faiths Calling to Prevent Gun Violence.

In light of the one-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook tragedy, and in memory of the thousands of Americans killed by gun violence in our country every year, we can and must transform our grief into action.  Already, we have come together several times with our interfaith partners to tell our lawmakers that we support common sense measures to prevent gun violence in this country, but it is time to unite our voices once again. We must let Congress know that we will continue to sound the moral drumbeat until there is action.

Add your voice to the chorus of partners from diverse backgrounds and traditions that have spoken out to end gun violence. On December 13th, call your Senators and tell them that we are committed to changing the culture of violence that pervades our society and to stopping the rampant gun violence problem plaguing our communities.

call: 1-855-438-2982

Text “FaithsCalling” to 877-877 for a reminder message