In wake of Francis’ visit, Congress gets a list of ‘must-do’ tasks

October 6, 2015
Advocacy is hard work, and sometimes the victories do not come right away. But Bread has been doing advocacy for decades and has the expertise, experience, and track record for bringing hope and opportunity. Photo: Joe Molieri / Bread for the World

By Amelia Kegan

Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S. was historic. His words, interactions, attention to individuals so often marginalized or ignored, and his overall presence genuinely inspired all who witnessed him. This is true not only for the throngs of people who went to see him and for those who watched him speak and read his remarks. He also brought humility and a sense of shared purpose to that place in Washington known for distrust, dysfunction, and division: the U.S. Congress.

Last week, in a follow-up to the pope's visit, Christian faith leaders in the Circle of Protection coalition met with congressional leaders to share a list of "must-do" tasks for Congress for the remainder of 2015:

  1. avoid brinksmanship and a government shutdown
  2. pass a budget deal that addresses sequestration and protects funding for programs directed toward people struggling with hunger and poverty
  3. make permanent the expiring provisions of the earned income tax credit and child tax credit, which encourage work and move millions of Americans out of poverty each year
  4. pass a strong child nutrition bill that connects more children with summer meals and protects programs like school lunch and SNAP (formerly food stamps) from cuts
  5. pass the Global Food Security Act to make Feed the Future permanent

I was impressed by how much Francis’ words resonated with members of Congress. He emphasized their responsibility to lift up and address the problems faced by people stuck in poverty. And many heard his call. Partisanship and gridlock are not things they want defining America's legislative body any more than the constituents do.

Add to this environment the stunning announcement by Speaker John Boehner of his retirement at the end of October. This leaves just a few short weeks before the House of Representatives sees new leadership. It's hard to know what the change in House leadership will mean for these must-do items on Congress’ agenda. But I was greatly encouraged by the recent news that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Boehner want to negotiate a budget deal that would address sequestration for a year or two, providing some certainty and alleviating the threats of a government shutdown, as the Ryan-Murray budget agreement did in 2013.

The pope's words moved and inspired me, just as they did to millions of people who heard them. But I expected that. What I didn't expect was how moved and inspired I would be by hearing how the pope's visit touched our elected leaders. I hope together we can keep Pope Francis' message in mind going forward, pursuing an agenda that will lift up people struggling with hunger and poverty, pursuing the common good. I hope the pope's visit turns out not just to be a breath of inspiration that falls away as the leaves change but rather an inflection point that leads to a broader change in tone and priorities in this country.

That vision is not just for members of Congress and the administration. It's also for us. We need to be the continued encouragement and force that drives this change among our elected leaders. We can start by asking candidates running for office in 2016 what they will do if elected to address poverty, as the Circle of Protection has done of the presidential candidates. We can start by advocating for Congress to come together to accomplish those five things on the Circle of Protection's must-do list.

Those two actions could help change the conversation and bring help and opportunity to millions of people around the world, individuals most deserving of a central focus of our call to consciousness, just as Pope Francis has done.

Amelia Kegan is the deputy director of government relations at Bread for the World.

Partisanship and gridlock are not things they want defining America's legislative body.

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