Going to the Well

It hasn’t yet become a daily routine, this going to the well of Congress to approve stopgap-spending bills so the federal government (and, yes, state and local governments, too, since they rely on federal funds for their functionings) can continue to operate.

But during this fiscal year, the temporary budget approvals have ranged from three days, to two weeks (twice), to two months, to ten weeks. The spending bill currently being considered is for another three weeks.

That, of course, isn’t the way it is supposed to be. Under ordinary circumstances the Congress adopts annual appropriations for the whole government for the whole year, which begins on October 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 some newly elected – 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 members of Congress who oppose constitutionally allowed abortion, and irrespective of what other health services the agency provides women.

The actual consequences of employing the tactic of using stopgap spending measures – of going to the well on short term basis – however, is much more far-reaching. An article in The New York Times by Robert Pear describes what is actually occurring:

“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 curtained training, travel and upgrades in information technology.” (“Budget Stalemate Leaves Chaos at Many Agencies,” 3/14/11)

Everything from Defense, Agriculture, Education, Health and Human Services, Social Security, Transportation, to NASA – you name it – has already been affected. Not surprisingly, programs that help the poor, the young, the most vulnerable are being the hardest hit.

Why? Why is this happening?

Because there is a prevalent belief that the well – the source of government funding through taxation and borrowing – is running dry, so a drastically reduced drain on that source has to be put in place on the expense side of the ledger.

Hardly anyone argues with the contention that the nation, through government action, must tackle budget issues, especially as it relates to annual deficits and accumulating debt. But there is plenty of argument about how to do that, on what kind of time schedule, and on whose back.

When those questions are raised, however, deeper motives for protecting against the drain on the well become exposed. For example, there are assumptions that the well can’t be replenished by raising tax revenues, especially on the wealthy. That, it is argued, would impinge as a matter of principle on their freedom to accumulate riches in what is supposed to be a free market and would negatively impact their willingness to invest in ways that could practically promote economic growth. There is the assumption that the deficit/debt issue has such priority that it overshadows the possible consequences of actually slowing the economic recovery or slipping back into recession or the more probable consequences that the most vulnerable in our society will be hurt the most. And there is the assumption that, time-wise, it is better to amputate quickly what are seen as the problems rather than taking a more measured and gradual 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 holding that money is the life-fluid of the nation and that unregulated money, whatever else results, is the only way to make that life-fluid flow.

It reminds me of the story in the Gospel of John (4: 1–42) in which a thirsty Jesus, on the run from Judea to Galilee via Samaria because he had heard the Pharisees were out to kill him (since he was becoming more successful in attracting disciples than John the Baptist), stops at Jacob’s well in Shechem and, without a bucket of his own, 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 of well water she would instead be asking him for a kind of living water that would quench a different kind of thirst forever. And the story continues with Jesus explaining that the source of his eternally thirst-quenching water is a gift from God and that this heavenly water is available not just to the Jews in Jerusalem and Judah but to everyone, wherever they live, whatever their gender or national origin or ethnic identity, even whatever the state of their soul.

The analogy is not perfect, I admit.

But there’s no question that the kind of water that comes from Jacob’s well there in Shechem is necessary. The human Jesus and the Samaritan woman, like every other human being, need that water regularly for their day-to-day life. It isn’t just that water washes away what is unclean and flushes out what is waste; it is also that water provides the hydration that is an essential condition of life itself.

Money is like water in that respect. A currency of some form is necessary in order to live in the human world. And it’s necessary to have it, even if in minimal amounts, on a fairly regular basis. In that sense one of the fundamental assumptions of the budget-cutters is correct: that money is, to some degree, the life-fluid of our nation, or, for that matter, most any human community.

One could even make the case that the free flow of money, like the free flow of fluids, is required for human biological livelihood, especially human life in a complex social setting.

But is money, like those fluids, the authentic or primary basis for our meaningful life as a people on some enduring basis – that is, our social, cultural, political life as a people? Can our life as a people be defined principally by our economic wealth?

Or must we go to a different kind of well – a different source of meaning – to find what is enduringly significant about a people?

Isn’t that source of life, not a well of money, important though money may be, but in the deep wells of people themselves, individually and collectively, in their mutual interactions, in their associations expressed through social and cultural forms that endure over time?

Something is essentially awry when we reverse these realms and allow money and its unencumbered and unregulated and unhampered flow to have precedence over human life itself and its enduring forms and patterns of meaning. That disorder – that awry-ness – can only be corrected, particularly in a democracy, if and when a case is made, in the public square and in the places where public policy is established, 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 role and flow of money are 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, individually and collectively, irrespective of place of residence, irrespective of gender or national origins or ethnic identity, irrespective of the state of the souls.

Given the dominating preoccupation of those make decisions in Washington D.C. these days and weeks and months, it is a crucial time for our country – for we the people – to determine the well we are going to.

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