On the day that President Donald Trump met with Pope Francis in Rome, a top administration official defended a proposed budget that America’s Catholic bishops have strongly criticized for hurting the poor.
The Trump administration official in the hot seat: budget chief Mick Mulvaney, a lifelong Catholic who grew up in Charlotte.
Speaking Wednesday to the House Budget Committee, Mulvaney called Trump’s budget plan a “moral” document that puts “taxpayers first.” And he defended the administration’s suggested slashing of social programs as a way to reduce the deficit and increase economic growth to 3 percent.
But in a letter to Congressional lawmakers, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called the kind of reductions envisioned for programs that help the poor – including Medicaid and food stamps – “profoundly troubling.”
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“Such deep cuts would pose a threat to the security of our nation and world, and would harm people facing dire circumstances,” the bishops wrote this month. “When … other potential legislative proposals, including health care and tax policies, are taken into account, the prospects for vulnerable people become even bleaker.”
One bishop said, “We cannot balance the budget on the backs of the poor.”
Asked what he would say to the bishops, Mulvaney texted the Observer: “Respectfully, that they are wrong.”
Mulvaney graduated from Charlotte Catholic High School and Georgetown University, a prestigious school run by Jesuits, an order of Catholic priests that’s also known as the Society of Jesus.
As a South Carolina congressman, his job before being tapped by Trump to be budget chief, Mulvaney often found himself in agreement with the country’s Catholic bishops, who have taken conservative stands against abortion and same-sex marriage.
But what’s often overlooked is that the Catholic bishops find themselves in league with Democrats in their liberal stands for programs and policies that help the poor and immigrants.
Or “the least of these,” as Jesus referred to society’s most vulnerable members in the New Testament.
Citing the church’s traditional social teaching, the bishops’ letter to Congress said “the budget requires difficult decisions that ought to be guided by moral criteria that protect human life and dignity, give central importance to the ‘least of these,’ and promote the welfare of workers and families who struggle to live in dignity.”
The Trump budget plan proposes no changes for Medicare or Social Security’s retirement income program. But the budget’s food stamp cuts would drive millions from that program, while a wave of Medicaid cuts – on top of more than $800 billion in the House-passed health care bill – could deny nursing home care to millions of elderly poor people. It would also force some people on Social Security’s disability program back into the workforce.
This week, Mulvaney has become the public face of the controversial budget proposal at a time when the globe-trotting president is meeting with leaders overseas. That includes the pope, who took his name from Francis of Assisi, the 12th century Italian saint who sold all his worldly goods to live a life of poverty and humility.
He and other popes – including those with more conservative reputations than Francis – have put the poor and needy in the forefront in their writings and speeches.
“While the common good embraces all, those who are weak, vulnerable, and most in need deserve preferential concern,” wrote Pope Benedict XVI in 2009. “A basic moral test for our society is how we treat the most vulnerable in our midst.”
But Mulvaney, an early tea party ally and former member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, has argued that federal programs for the poor can encourage dependency and discourage work.
“We are no longer going to measure compassion by the number of programs or the number of people on those programs,” Mulvaney said Monday as he rolled out the budget proposal. “We are going to measure compassion and success by the number of people we help get off of those programs and get back in charge of their own lives.”
The Trump budget would spend $4.1 trillion for the upcoming 2018 fiscal year. It includes a big increase for the Pentagon, but would squeeze foreign aid and domestic programs funded annually by Congress by about 10 percent next year and $1.4 trillion over the coming decade.
The severity of the proposed cuts to safety net programs – reminiscent of then-President Ronald Reagan’s budget cuts in the 1980s – has drawn opposition from Democrats and even some Republicans.
But many conservatives, including some Catholic lawmakers, have applauded the idea of cutting such programs in the interest of reducing the deficit and spurring economic growth, which could bring in more revenue.
U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., who’s Catholic, said in a statement that the president’s proposed budget reflects “the urgent need for tough choices and bold solutions.”
“Students, workers, and small businesses cannot succeed in an economy that is crippled by too much government and too much debt,” she said.
At the House Budget hearing Wednesday, Mulvaney disputed the charge that the cuts he was proposing would lead to truly needy people getting kicked to the street or freezing to death.
“No they (won’t). We are not going to kick any deserving person off any meaningful program. ... Republicans care about poor people as much as Democrats,” he said. “But we look at it from a different perspective, which is the balance (between) those who receive the benefits with folks who pay for the benefits.”
Mulvaney said he went “line by line” through the federal budget and asked, “Can we justify this to the folks who are actually paying for it?”
But other Catholic groups echoed the concerns of the country’s conference of Catholic bishops.
The NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice, led by Sister Simone Campbell, cited the pope and the Gospel in its condemnation of a budget plan that also reflects a tax overhaul proposed by Trump that would benefit the wealthy.
“Pope Francis has been abundantly clear that trickle-down economics results in an economy of exclusion and is not supported by the Gospel,” the group said in a news release. “In his budget, President Trump doubles down on this tried-and-failed policy.”
The Associated Press and William Douglas of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed.