It hasn’t yet become a daily routine, but Congress continues to go to the well to approve stop-gap spending bills so the federal government can continue to operate.
But this fiscal year, temporary budget approvals have included terms of three days, two weeks (twice), two months and 10 weeks. The current spending bill is for another three weeks.
That isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.
Under ordinary circumstances, Congress adopts annual appropriations for the whole government for the whole year, which begins Oct. 1. If need be, Congress can pass legislation that sustains support for agencies in need of funds at the previous year’s level. But that’s expected to be the exception, not the rule.
This year it’s the rule.
That’s because some fiscally conservative members of the House of Representatives and the Senate – some old-timers and new members – are not only committed to reducing government spending generally but also intent on eliminating funding entirely for targeted programs.
The health care reform program passed a year ago is one of those targets. The purpose of wiping out funding is to make sure the reforms don’t get implemented.
Support for Planned Parenthood is another target, particularly for those who oppose constitutionally allowed abortion.
The consequences of using stop-gap spending measures – going to the well – are much more far-reaching.
New York Times reporter Robert Pear wrote: “Unsure from week to week how much money Congress will provide them as the two parties battle over the budget for the rest of the year, federal officials say many agencies have been operating in chaos, confusion and uncertainty. Officials at various agencies have frozen hiring, canceled projects, delayed contracts, reduced grants and curtailed training, travel and upgrades in information technology.”
Every federal agency has been affected. Not surprisingly, programs that help the poor, the young and the most vulnerable are being hit hardest.
Why is this happening?
Because there is a prevalent belief that the well – the source of government funding – is running dry.
Hardly anyone argues that the nation shouldn’t tackle budget issues, especially as they relate to annual deficits and accumulating debt. But there is plenty of argument about how to do that.
The argument includes several assumptions. For example, some assume the well can’t be replenished by raising tax revenues, especially on the wealthy. That would impinge on their freedom to accumulate riches and would negatively impact their willingness to invest in ways that could promote economic growth.
Others assume the deficit/debt issue has such priority that it overshadows the consequences of slowing the economic recovery or hurting the most vulnerable in our society.
And others assume it’s better to amputate quickly what are seen as problems rather than taking a more measured approach that runs the risk of not being followed to its required end.
But fundamentally what undergirds this fierce commitment to reduce dramatically the federal budget is a two-edged ideology. It holds that money is the life-fluid of the nation, and that unregulated money is the only way to make that life-fluid flow.
It reminds me of the story in John 4:1-42 in which a thirsty Jesus stops at Jacob’s well in Shechem. Without a bucket of his own, he asks a Samaritan woman for a drink of water.
Knowing that Jesus, a Jew from Judah, is violating a religious law on both gender and ethnic grounds, the woman asks Jesus why he is requesting a drink from a female foreigner.
Jesus replies that if the woman only knew who was asking her for a drink, she would be asking him for living water that would quench forever a different kind of thirst.
Jesus explains that the source of his eternally thirst-quenching water is a gift from God, and that heavenly water is available not just to the Jews in Jerusalem and Judah but to everyone, whatever their gender or national origin or ethnic identity.
The analogy is not perfect, I admit.
There’s no question that the kind of water that comes from Jacob’s well is necessary. Jesus and the Samaritan woman, like all human beings, needed water for their day-to-day lives.
And it isn’t just that water washes away what is unclean. It’s also that water provides the hydration that is an essential condition of life itself.
Money is like water. Money is necessary in order to live.
In that sense, one of the assumptions of the budget-cutters is correct: Money is the life-fluid of our nation.
One could make the case that money, like the free flow of fluid, is required for human livelihood.
But can our life as a people be defined principally by our economic wealth? Or must we go to a different kind of well to find what is enduringly significant?
Isn’t that source of life not a well of money, but in the deep wells of people themselves?
Something is essentially awry when we reverse these realms and allow the unhampered flow of money to have precedence over human life itself.
That disorder can only be corrected if and when a case is made for drawing on what would seem to be the nearly inexhaustible wells of meaning and vitality of human beings and their communities.
It can then be recognized that the necessary flow of money is to serve a purpose other than money itself and to be guided in its use by those larger and enduring ends that constructively serve humanity.
Given the dominating preoccupation of those who make decisions in Washington, D.C., these days, it is a crucial time for our country to determine the well we are going to.
Larry Greenfield is executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago. He also serves as editor and theologian-in-residence for The Common Good Network.