The Usual Suspects have sent a letter to Congress demanding that the parts of the federal budget that they like be exempt from fiscal reality:

Our witness as faith leaders is grounded in love for God and neighbor and all Creation. Accordingly, we are compelled to speak out against the proposed deep cuts in FY2011 discretionary domestic and poverty-focused foreign aid spending. Jesus challenged people to define themselves by the measure of their love for one another, with particular concern for those struggling in poverty and marginalized by society. His Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) transforms and broadens our definition of the neighbor and lifts up a model of relationship with our neighbors that should define and sustain our community, national and international life.

Let’s grant the theological and biblical points being made here. What the mainliners never, ever want to come to grips with is this: stating these beliefs says nothing–absolutely nothing–about the specific public policy proposals they make. They simply assume that loving neighbor means spending more federal dollars on him, a questionable assumption to say the least, especially since Jesus in the parable is talking about taking personal responsibility for the one in need, while the mainliners want to do their good deeds with other people’s money.

Love acknowledges our interdependence and our responsibility for the future. None of us can prosper and be secure while some of us live in misery and desperation. In an interdependent world, the security and prosperity of any nation is inseparable from that of even the most vulnerable both within and beyond their borders. Our churches remain fully committed to our anti-poverty ministries in the U.S. and around the world. But we also know from this hard-won experience that similarly, our nation must remain committed to providing attention to and opportunity for poor and vulnerable people.

If we are truly responsible for the future, then now is the time to get serious about a debt problem that could ruin this nation and make any provision for the poor impossible. And if they want the nation to provide “opportunity for poor and vulnerable people,” it is time they recognize that government support is not the way to do so, that private sector employment is the engine that can (and regularly does) lift poor people out of poverty.

Discretionary programs that serve the poor and vulnerable are a very small percentage of the budget, and they are not the drivers of the deficits. Unchecked increases in military spending combined with vast tax cuts helped create our country’s financial difficulties and restoring financial soundness requires addressing these root imbalances.

The first sentence here is correct, though it overlooks the fact that spending on those programs has increased tremendously in the last couple of years. There is a great deal of duplication and overlap among such federal programs, and if, as the General Accounting Office said this week, there is a lot of consolidation that can take place in this area, that by itself would bring about both better delivery of services to those who need them and savings in cost. The mainliners want to just dig in their heels and defend the status quo, but that’s neither fiscally possible nor even necessary to the mission of the programs they support.

The second sentence, however, is simply the product of a combination of fantasy and economic ignorance. If the entire defense budget were eliminated, this year’s deficit would still be over a trillion dollars. And the tax cuts to which they refer–the cuts of 2001 that were left in place for the next two years, meaning, in essence, that there have been no tax cuts in the last two years that would have had the effect the mainliners imagine–would not come close to making up the remainder if they were repealed tomorrow. That’s not to mention that doing so would significantly deepen the unemployment problem, since a lot of money that could be used on either investment or consumption would be sucked out of the private economy and put in the hands of the least efficient economic actor.

The primary causes for the explosion of debt is clear and undeniable: a combination of vast social spending increases (including the stimulus that was essentially a trillion dollars flushed down the drain), and entitlement spending that continues to grow rapidly. The mainliners can stick their heads in the sand, and pretend that it’s all the fault of warmongering generals and greedy rich people, but that’s not going to make a public debt that even the reality-challenged White House budget that predicts a near doubling of the debt over then next ten years go away.

We share your concerns over long-term deficits and urge you to find just solutions that will protect future generations both from a legacy of debt and a legacy of poverty and underinvestment. Cutting discretionary programs is not a just solution. These cuts will devastate those living in poverty, at home and around the world, cost jobs, and in the long run, will harm, not help, our fiscal situation. While “shared sacrifice” can be an appropriate banner, those who would be devastated by these cuts have nothing left to sacrifice.

“Underinvestment.” I wonder what book of political euphemisms they got that from. The reference to “cutting” discretionary programs is another. Inside the Beltway, that translates to, “not increasing spending as much as I want.” The funny–or pathetic–thing is that no one know whether a lot of this spending that the mainliners consider crucial to the future of Western civilization even does any good. From the Wall Street Journal story on the GAO report:

The report says there are 18 federal programs that spent a combined $62.5 billion in 2008 on food and nutrition assistance, but little is known about the effectiveness of 11 of these programs because they haven’t been well studied.

And that’s no doubt the case with lots of other federal programs, without which the sky would allegedly fall.

At the end, the letter writers rachet up the rhetoric, almost calling down fire-and-brimstone on the would be budget-cutters:

The unprecedented and dangerous cuts to discretionary domestic programs and poverty-focused foreign assistance will jeopardize the lives and well-being of millions now and into the future. These deep and unwise spending cuts are a betrayal of our call to love our neighbor.

Geez, why don’t you just come out and call John Boehner, Paul Ryan, and Kent Conrad heathens. In fact, the mainliners know nothing about what the effect of proposed cuts would be on anyone. They cite no evidence, they mention no facts, they just spout the political line of the day, a line that has been the same–no matter what the circumstances, no matter what the specifics–for decades. For the NCC and denominational bureaucrats who wrote this, theology and ethics may change with the winds, but the old political verities are eternal.