A Challenge to Our National Values

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If House Republicans were to remake the shipwreck film, Titanic, we would be appalled by the portrayal (on one side of the split screen) of women and children from steerage being tossed into the sea, while rich passengers in formal attire were shown (on the other screen) dancing and enjoying their elegant, 12-course meals.

Does this metaphor for the actions of my Republican House colleagues in the Washington budget battles seem unfair? Consider the cuts that they are trying to force upon our national WIC (Women, Infants and Children Supplemental Nutrition) Program.

WIC is the federally funded initiative that provides healthy supplemental foods and nutrition counseling for pregnant women, new mothers, infants and children under age five. It has a solid 35-year record of preventing children's health problems and improving their long-term development. It is a critical safety net foundation for all communities, especially our own. WIC serves more than 9 million women, infants and children nationwide (1.8 million of whom are African Americans). More than 148,000 of our Maryland neighbors benefitted directly from WIC last year.

As a result, there are fewer fetal and infant deaths and low birth-weight babies. WIC children have a lowered incidence of anemia – and they also do better in early vocabulary tests than do children who are denied the same level of nutrition. Research has shown that every $1 we spend on WIC saves up to $3 in health care costs during the first two months after a baby’s birth.

Why, then, would House Republicans vote for a $733 million cut in WIC funding? Why did they vote to cut a program that is working – one that has saved more than 200,000 newborn babies from dying?

After all, as other commentators have noted, just one week’s worth of the Bush tax cuts ($860 million in tax breaks) for millionaires would pay for WIC protection for the 450,000 poor mothers and children who could lose WIC services if the Senate were to agree with the House Republicans’ proposed cuts.

My Democratic colleague and friend Congressman John Conyers, of Michigan, spoke truth to power about the Republicans’ June 16 House vote when he declared, “It is simply un-American, immoral, heartless and unconscionable to take food away from the mouths of hungry children in the name of deficit reduction.”

I agree, but the tragic political reality is that House Democrats did not have the votes to stop this potentially disastrous error by our Republican colleagues.

Now, our nation’s infants, children and their mothers must rely upon Senate Democrats and President Obama to protect their lives.

Fortunately, Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee. Along with almost all other Senate Democrats (and some Senate Republicans), she believes that targeting the WIC program is wrong.

“It’s very disturbing to me that the House [Republicans] would focus particularly on WIC,” she has declared. “We will not support the level of cuts in the House bill. It will be opposed on a bipartisan basis.”

Speaking for the Republicans, Congressman Jack Kingston of Georgia has tried to downplay the human and public health consequences of the potential cuts, a shortfall that he acknowledges would amount to a 12-13 percent reduction in funding.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack disagrees – as do I.

If the proposed WIC cuts were enacted into law, that action would lead to “a substantial reduction in the program, likely by hundreds of thousands of participants per month.”

Ms. Jessica Proctor knows, first hand, how important the WIC program has been to the health of her children. Her response crystallizes the moral equation that is at the heart of this budget debate.

“I just hope they don’t cut WIC,” Ms. Proctor pleads. “There’s going to be a lot of hurt mothers out here, and babies.”

In this budget fight, our nation’s moral integrity is at stake.

To our national credit, we are at the forefront of the international efforts to improve pregnant women and babies’ nutrition worldwide. We should continue to do the same here at home.

I continue to believe that we can overcome our economic challenges through genuinely shared sacrifice.

We must find the way to bring our budget into balance and save the full faith and credit of the United States, and we shall – but not at the price of drowning babies.
Our economy is sailing through some troubled waters, but the Titanic is not sinking.

Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.