A government budget should be seen as a moral document in two senses: strategic and tactical.
In the strategic sense, it is a moral document by how it protects human life and dignity and how it provides for those living in poverty or homelessness.
In a tactical sense, it is a moral document for being upfront, for doing what it says it is doing.
The fiscal year 2013 budget submitted to Congress may eventually meet its strategic requirements. However, on the tactical level it fails for being deceptive and devious.
Few citizens have the expertise and even less time to devote to an analysis of the government’s fiscal operations. That’s what makes this look a little suspicious.
Last August, during the contentious debt ceiling debate, Congress enacted caps on discretionary spending, a "defense cap" and a "nondefense cap."
They are seen as two separate and independent accounts so that increased spending on defense could not be done at the expense of social program spending. But the Obama administration budget proposes to alter them into single overall cap on all discretionary appropriations starting in fiscal year 2014.
This is not what people thought they were getting as part of the whole summer budget balancing arguments. It was reasonable for people to believe the accounts would remain separate.
What happens if they are combined? Richard Kogan of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains it this way:
"In the current political environment, in which advocates of defense spending are emphatic, defense contractors employ well-connected lobbyists and make substantial campaign contributions and budgetary savings in defense are often attacked as jeopardizing national security, the proposal would likely lead to further cuts in domestic and international discretionary programs to help protect the military budget."
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops addressed the moral and human dimensions of the federal budget in a letter to all senators and House members. They made a point to note the less than impregnable firewall as well.
"We are also very concerned with proposals to eliminate the ‘firewall’ that currently exists between defense and nondefense spending," they wrote.
"Elimination of this firewall would mean that poverty-related domestic and international programs would compete with other more powerful interests and less essential priorities," they said.
The moral measure of the budget, the bishops say, is how those who are jobless, hungry, homeless or poor are treated.
"Their voices are too often missing in these debates," they said.
There is no such concern that the voices of the military and defense contractors are not heard. But they have questions to answer, such as: "How much is enough?"
The last of 195 F-22 Raptor stealth fighters came off the assembly line at the end of last year. According to the Air Force, each cost $143 million. But the U.S. Government Accountability Office said developmental expenses made each plane cost $412 million. In service since 2005, none of these aircraft has been used in combat in Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya.
There are sure to be similar programs in the future. This $143 million or $412 million could be taken from the nondefense appropriations cap. The $143 million- or $412 million-per-plane cost could feed and house a few thousand people who can’t help themselves.
The firewall is a good idea so that those whose voices are easily heard don’t help themselves at the expense of those whose voices remain unheard.
Kent, now retired, was editor of archdiocesan newspapers in Omaha and Seattle.