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Budget critics: What would Jesus cut?

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Immoral. That's what several religious groups are calling President Bush's latest budget. The charge has political ramifications. It threatens to undermine some of Mr. Bush's support from voters concerned with values. But it also raises a deep question: Can budgets be moral or immoral? Is that really how the nation's spending plan should be judged? This emerging challenge is turning the "values" debate on its head. Liberals are putting policy issues in moral terms. Conservatives are resisting it.

"Budgets are moral documents, providing a framework for laying out priorities and values," says Yonce Shelton, public policy director for Call to Renewal, a progressive, faith-based organization in Washington. His biggest complaint: The administration is "trying to balance the budget on the backs of the poor," at the same time it is expanding tax cuts for the wealthy. "It's not a moral-based approach," he says.

Conservatives disagree.

An "ethical" budget calls for effective spending, says William Beach, an economist at the conservative Heritage Foundation. He calls it "disingenuous" and "ethically vacuous" to say budget cuts in ineffective programs are immoral without offering alternatives to such cuts.

In his State of the Union address early this month, Bush argued that the 150 programs he wants cut or axed "are not getting results, or duplicate current efforts, or do not fulfill essential priorities.... Taxpayer dollars must be spent wisely, or not at all."

Although not quarreling with the need for program efficiency, liberal critics do not accept the argument that the Bush cuts aim only at that efficiency goal.

"The Bush budget is not one of shared sacrifice," says Robert Greenstein, executive director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), a liberal think tank in Washington. "It maintains all the old tax cuts and adds new ones [$146 billion over 10 years] heavily tilted to the top," while slashing benefits for the poor.

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