Successes During an Unproductive Congress
The 112th Congress (Jan. 3, 2011 – Jan. 3, 2013) could very well be the most unproductive in our nation's history. It was characterized by deficit reduction drama and political brinkmanship – often aimed at cutting programs vital to hungry and poor people.
In the end, persistent advocacy by Bread for the World members, our partner organizations, and other people of faith resulted in reducing our deficit by more than $2 trillion over the next ten years. The White House and the 112th Congress managed to do this without substantial cuts to programs vital to those whom Jesus called "the least of these."
A Circle of Protection Was Created in 2011 in Response to Threats to Vital Programs
It became clear toward the end of 2010 that we were in for a bruising battle during the 112th Congress. Thus, we spent most of our time in 2011 and 2012 defending programs vital to hungry and poor people from unprecedented attacks in Congress. Although our 2011 Offering of Letters focused on reforming foreign aid, we quickly expanded it to protect domestic and international programs vital to vulnerable people.
We worked with other faith organizations to create a Circle of Protection around these programs and to amplify the voice of the faith community in the deficit reduction discussions.
The extent of the attacks became evident when Congress passed a bill covering the FY 2011 budget, which cut poverty-focused development assistance programs and WIC. The budget was eventually enacted (Pub. L. 112-10, the Department of Defense and Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act, 2011) with a few hours to spare before the government would have shut down in April 2011.
Deficit reduction negotiations continued as the country moved closer to reaching our credit limit, or debt ceiling, in August. Congress eventually passed the Budget Control Act of 2011 (Pub.L. 112-25). It established a super committee to deal with further deficit reductions. Should the committee fail, across-the-board cuts would be triggered. However, the cuts, or sequester, exempted the biggest anti-poverty programs — the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps), tax credits for the working poor, Medicaid, and child nutrition programs.
Deficit Reduction Plans in 2012 Propose Severe Cuts to Programs that Help Poor People
The super committee failed to reach an agreement and 2012 opened with Congress vowing to work toward deficit reduction and avoid the sequester.
Our 2012 Offering of Letters focused on expanding the circle of protection around such anti-poverty programs. By then, we also learned that in order to cope with these unprecedented attacks, we had to change the way we campaigned. Instead of focusing on a single issue, we worked on four different issues under a broad campaign theme.
In March, the Republican-led House passed its FY 2013 budget. Had this passed Congress, the proposed cuts would have been so severe that most of the government—aside from health care, Social Security, and defense—would cease to exist by 2050. In fact, 62 percent of the cuts in this budget are to programs vital to poor people.
Added to the mix during deficit reduction discussions was the reauthorization of the farm bill. Both the Senate and House proposed cuts, with the House version of the bill including $16.5 billion in cuts to SNAP over ten years—$12 billion more than the cuts proposed in the Senate version. As many as 3 million people would have been cut out of SNAP and 280,000 children would have lost school meals. Both bills would have reduced agriculture and nutrition spending over the next ten years.
A Few Signs of Hope in 2012
During the presidential elections of 2012 the Circle of Protection asked the Republican and Democratic candidates to issue video statements on how they would end hunger. In the fall, both President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney released statements committing to addressing hunger and poverty. We were able to use these statements to draw attention to the issues.
It is worth noting that before the year ended, outgoing House Foreign Affairs Committee Ranking Member Howard Berman (D-Calif.) introduced his rewrite of the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act, the Global Partnership Act. Also, the House unanimously consented to approve the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act of 2012 to improve the efficiency of U.S. foreign aid. While these bills did not pass, we remain optimistic that similar bills will pass in the 113th Congress.
Congress and the President Avoided the Most Harmful Scenario at the Fiscal Cliff
All the issues that we persistently advocated for during the 112th Congress were dramatically resolved a few hours before we reached the fiscal cliff at the end of December 2012.
President Obama signed the American Taxpayer Relief Act to prevent the most economically harmful portions of the fiscal cliff from taking effect. The deal minimizes the negative impact of the fiscal cliff on hungry and poor people and generates about $620 billion towards deficit reduction over the next ten years.
The deal prevents most Americans from seeing an immediate tax rate increase and extends emergency unemployment insurance through 2013. It also extends the current Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Child Tax Credit (CTC) benefit levels for five years.
It postpones for two months the across-the-board cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011. Most provisions of the 2008 farm bill were extended through Sept. 30 2013, avoiding immediate cuts to SNAP benefit levels or changes in eligibility standards.
On the international side, the temporary extension of the 2008 farm bill authorizes funding for both the McGovern-Dole International Food Program, used for school feeding programs for poor children abroad, and the Food for Peace Program, which allows the United States to respond to disaster with needed food aid.
Ultimately, the American Taxpayer Relief Act raises revenues, helps reduce the deficit, and supports initiatives that lift people out of poverty.
Thank You for Your Advocacy and Prayers
Despite many challenges, 2012 ended on a positive note for us, with many important anti-poverty programs being protected from harmful and disproportionate cuts. Medicaid, SNAP, and WIC were not cut. Many tax credits that help people lift themselves out of poverty were extended. Most critically, the worst effects of the fiscal cliff were avoided.
And for all of this, we are thankful to you, our members, our activists, our donors, and our partners. As the 113th Congress begins its work we pray that it will be more productive than the 112th Congress in protecting programs vital to hungry and poor people, wherever they may be.