God's Politics

Jim WallisJust a week after the November elections, I had the opportunity to speak to all the state chairs of the Democratic Party at their annual meeting in Jackson Hole, Wyoming – fulfilling an invitation that came a year before. Obviously, the Democratic sweep of the House and Senate in the midterm elections was the main item of discussion among the excited delegates. I began my remarks by congratulating them on their hard work and success, but then told them I would not call this a victory, but an opportunity – because the things the American people wanted to change with their votes had yet to be changed. Since then, we have seen the beginning of a Democratic agenda, with a first “hundred hours” to-do list for the new Congress.

Last summer, Sojourners/Call to Renewal, with over 40 endorsing organizations, launched the Covenant for a New America, a bold vision and platform for overcoming poverty. As the new Congress convenes today, I am encouraged to see that some of the Covenant’s prescriptions will be proposed and debated. Today, we repeat our call for the nation’s political leaders to address the mounting crisis of so many people in our nation who are falling further behind, and many more worldwide who have fallen off the world’s agenda.

The nation and world are watching the new Congress to see if changes in power will bring real changes in both approach and results. Just as in 1974, when President Gerald Ford called our nation to healing, the new Congress has a chance to begin to overcome the cynicism about government that has become so widespread, to combat the extreme partisan warfare that has so polarized and paralyzed our nation’s public life, to renew the concept of the common good over individual gain and special interest control, and to think and act boldly and creatively on the biggest issues our nation faces. I urge the new Congress to rise to the challenge.

Corruption turned out to be one of the biggest issues that motivated voters to seek change. The nation needs to see our political leadership make serious reforms in Congressional ethics the starting point for policy debates. Will changes be cosmetic or substantial? Americans are hungry for a new tone and new ways of practically meeting real needs. Honesty and transparency are moral values, too, according to the voters, and these two virtues must now set the stage for improving everything from our political discourse to the lives of countless Americans, and our reputation in the world.

People across America want a better political process, one that restores core democratic principles. We cannot produce the change our country needs to help those who are hurting without changing a system corrupted by money. This will require a comprehensive package of reforms that starts with a ban on lobbyist gifts and paid travel, and strengthens inadequate disclosure requirements around earmarks. Broader campaign finance reform, electoral reform, and ethics reform will be critical for restoring integrity to our democratic system.

The promised increase in minimum wage is a good start and a good symbol. But we must truly “make work work” – those who work responsibly should have a living family income in which their earnings – combined with supports for transportation, health care, nutrition, child care, education, housing, and other basic needs – provide a decent standard of living. This pro-family, pro-work framework represents a combination of personal and social responsibility that makes families both better and stronger. The immediate opportunity to make work “work” for more families rests with passing clean legislation to increase the minimum wage – but we must not stop there.

Faith communities around the country will continue efforts to secure a moral budget as a first step toward empowering and protecting those who are left out and left behind. The fiscal year 2008 budget provides an opportunity to show the nation what matters. Faith-based social service providers, and many others, know firsthand that our priorities need adjustment; the poorest among us, who rely on basic human supports, are falling through the cracks. We see the human face of budget numbers every day in the families and children who need new opportunities, not political neglect.

Every American is aware of the rising cost of health care and the declining access to quality care. Of course, it is low-income families and children who suffer the most. But middle-income Americans without affordable, quality care are increasingly finding themselves in financial ruin. This presents the opportunity to do something bold. Our leaders should develop a plan – one that holds them accountable – to drastically increase health care coverage for the 47 million Americans who currently lack it. Congress could take a step forward by starting with health coverage for our most vulnerable – our children – through an expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) in 2007, so more (and finally all) children can be covered.

A new Congress and new leadership is the perfect time to set a new tone and direction. Throughout this new Congress, we will be sending action alerts and offering other opportunities for faith-inspired advocacy as we work to build a movement that can change the wind in Washington, and hold both sides of the aisle accountable to a bold and prophetic vision, one that includes all Americans in its promise and future.

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