United Church of Christ activists for a faithful budget woke up Thursday with a reason to be grateful. After a 15-day partial government shutdown, the government reopened for business on Oct. 17, and for that UCC leaders credit thousands of people who made their voice heard to members of Congress.
But the current federal budget deal provides a short-term solution, and Sandy Sorensen, director of the UCC office in Washington, D.C., would prefer avoiding the ordeal again when it expires as early as January.
"While we are relieved that members of Congress were able to forge a last-minute agreement to avoid an immediate budget crisis, we remain deeply concerned that critical budget decisions still loom large, and those who live on the economic margins of society are still largely left out of the negotiations," she said.
UCC ministers and members sent more than 3,300 letters to decision makers during the last few weeks, calling on them to make responsible decisions regarding the nation's budget and debt limit – even though some offices were difficult to reach because of the government shutdown.
Congress passed a budget bill Oct. 16 – more than two weeks after the partial government shutdown – and President Barack Obama signed it late that night. The bill funds the government through Jan. 7, 2014, and extends the debt ceiling through Feb. 15. If the debt ceiling, which is the limit the government can borrow to pay its creditors and employees, hadn't been increased, it likely would have meant a drop in the nation's credit rating and caused a rift in the economy.
"We are mindful that over the last few weeks this legislative impasse has come at great cost to thousands of people," Sorensen said. "In the midst of wrangling over the debt ceiling deadline and the government shutdown, critical progress on other key legislative issues, such as immigration reform and gun violence, has been stalled. We must continue to call upon our elected officials to set aside partisanship and political maneuvering and take up the call to govern with a commitment to the good of all."
The good news out of all this is that 800,000 furloughed workers returned to work Thursday morning, and about 1 million others who had to work through the shutdown without pay will begin receiving paychecks. National parks and landmarks reopened, along with other government offices that handle services such as IRS audits and food assistance programs.
On Tuesday, Oct. 15, Sorensen joined about 70 interfaith advocates for the Faithful Fillibuster, walking from office to office on Capitol Hill, calling on congressional leaders to act and approve a budget and raise the borrowing limit. The filibuster was a religious effort, organized by the Circle of Protection, to read more than 2,000 Bible verses to remind Congress that their actions impact vulnerable Americans. Today, that group is reminding Congress to fulfill its duty and avoid another showdown in January.
"The Faithful Filibuster was not just an exercise in reading empty words from scripture. We were listening to scripture, listening to God, and listening to our neighbor," said the Rev. Ann Tiemeyer, interim associate general secretary for Joint Action and Advocacy of the National Council of Churches. "As our government representatives now begin a process of negotiating a budget, we ask them to continue to listen, to listen to the neighbors who cry out, and create a budget that protects vital programs for people in or near poverty in the United States and around the world."