Budget Committee Hearing on Poverty Turns Into Nun-Bashing Tournament

House budget committee chairman Paul Ryan presided over a hearing called to assess the "war on poverty." But with a liberal nun on the witness panel, it became a war on religion.

Sister Simone Campbell throws up her hands under questioning at the hearing, titled "The War on Poverty: A Progress Report." RepToddRotika / YouTube

As the budget strategy of House Republicans began to unravel Wednesday with the withdrawal from the floor of a major spending bill, Paul Ryan (R-WI), chairman of the Committee on the Budget, appeared unfazed. He had a plan: Blame the poor and the liberals who seek to keep them from going hungry.

His committee colleagues, however, amended the strategy a bit to this: Blame the nun and her bad theology.

A Wednesday budget committee hearing billed as a “progress report” on the “war on poverty,” clearly convened by Ryan as an indictment of the social safety net, quickly devolved into an inquisition of witness Sister Simone Campbell, the executive director of the social justice group NETWORK who is famous for leading last year’s Nuns on the Bus campaign.

It wasn’t the first time Ryan and Campbell had faced off. Nuns on the Bus first won media attention when Campbell and her fellow sisters launched their road trip during the presidential campaign to protest Ryan’s safety-net-slashing 2012 budget. And, speaking from the podium of the 2012 Democratic National Convention, Campbell said that the budget crafted by Ryan, who is Roman Catholic, flew in the face of Catholic moral teaching.

So, while Ryan managed to be unfailingly polite to Campbell at the hearing (well, except for failing to laud her as an expert in her field—she’s a family law attorney—or acknowledge her role as the leader of an organization), his colleagues stood ready to take aim at her theology, which they sought to portray as flawed. (The other witnesses were Eloise Anderson, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families; Jon Baron, president of the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy; and Douglas Besharov, professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy.)

Ryan’s intent was clear in his opening statement. After saying that the U.S. government had spent $15 trillion in anti-poverty programs since 1964 and had little to show for it, he went on to assert of his hearing, “This isn’t about cutting spending. It’s about improving people’s lives.”

The committee’s ranking member, Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), noted in his opening statement that Ryan’s budget plan calls for converting the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), popularly known as food stamps, into a block grant funded at levels one-third below Congressional Budget Office estimates of anticipated need. (Just last month, the House passed a farm bill that eliminated SNAP from the final version, leaving the Appropriations Committee to find another way to fund the program.)

Campbell’s testimony focused on the “faithful budget” on which NETWORK and other faith groups collaborated—a budget proposal designed to address poverty and other social justice needs.

As the question-and-answer session got underway, it became clear that Campbell’s unusual combination of credentials, combined with her liberal politics, got under the skin of members of what is often described as God’s Own Party. Many of the the Republicans who questioned her felt the need to assert their own religious bona fides before lobbing their rhetorical grenades.

Todd Rokita (R-IN) spoke of his Catholic schooling, while Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) began her questioning by saying, “I was teaching a Sunday school class …” And Reid Ribble (R-WI) began his questioning by mentioning all the many pastors in his family. “Christianity is all about the church reaching out to the poor,” Ribble said. “What is the church doing wrong that it needs to come to government (to fund anti-poverty efforts)?” he asked of Campbell.

“I think it’s more a reflection of the dimension of the issue,” Campbell replied. She cited a study issued last year that estimated every house of worship in the nation would have to contribute an additional $50,000 per year for the next ten years in order to make up for Republican budget cuts to the social safety nets of just two states.

Jim McDermott (D-WA) was just beside himself after that. “This hearing is surreal,” he said. “It ought to be about jobs. … We are not living in the real world. Nobody here has to make a decision about whether you feed your kids or not.”

Indeed, a recent Associated Press survey found that “[f]our out of 5 U.S. adults struggle with joblessness, near-poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives.”

Barbara Lee (D-CA) lamented the fact that the committee failed to call as a witness anyone who had ever relied on public assistance to get by, although both she and Gwen Moore (D-WI) spoke to their own experience as having relied on the safety net earlier in their lives.

New Jersey Republican Scott Garrett invoked the book of Genesis to suggest that people who receive public assistance don’t want to work, saying, “God actually took man and put him into the Garden of Eden and directed him to work the Garden of Eden. And if I remember my scripture well, it was actually before the fall (from grace). … After the fall, of course, he and Eve had sinned, and it wasn’t so easy to work the Garden anymore; he had the (expulsion) and the rest to deal with. But from a Catholic and Christian imperative, work is a moral imperative.”

And we all know who caused Adam to commit that original sin.

Later in the hearing, Campbell responded to a question from Roger Williams (R-TX), who challenged the wisdom of the Affordable Care Act’s requirements for businesses by saying, “Regulation helps us avoid the wages of original sin.”

Blackburn notched up the religion attack on Campbell by challenging the nun’s Catholic credentials because her group had been targeted by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith during last year’s crackdown by the Holy See on liberal U.S. nuns. It was a shockingly untoward wade by a Protestant into the internal politics of the Roman Catholic Church.

After noting her role as a religion teacher, and asking budget and taxation questions of the witnesses, Blackburn launched her barrage against Campbell. “You say that you come before this committee today … as a Catholic sister rooted in the Christian tradition,” said Blackburn. “Would it be fair for this committee to question the validity of your testimony knowing that the Vatican has reprimanded the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and singled out your organization in an official … doctrine of assessment for only promoting issues of social justice and being silent on the right to life from conception to natural death?”

Responding, Campbell said, “I believe that the [action of the] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is about theological struggles; it is not about our engagement in political activity. And as I said in my testimony, our organization works on economic issues.”

“Is everything in your testimony today compatible with positions taken by the Catholic church?” Blackburn continued.

“Yes,” Campbell replied. She also noted that she is “pro-life.”

Blackburn’s questioning was too much even for Ryan, who stepped in to defend his fellow Catholic from attack by the Protestant lawmaker. After explaining the Catholic teaching on matters of “prudential judgment,” he said, “There are areas where we exercise prudential judgment, and this economic sphere is clearly one where we have exercised prudential judgment and arrived at different conclusions, such as economic growth, poverty, and the rest. I say this as a Catholic who disagrees with you sometimes on these issues, I think you’re well within Catholic teaching to give the testimony that you gave here today.”

But the prize for nun-dissing in Wednesday’s war-on-poverty hearing goes to Todd Rotika (R-IN), who asked Campbell, “What’s the number we have to confiscate in terms of the property of other people in order to solve your budget?”

He didn’t stop there; he kept talking, essentially indicting Campbell as a would-be thief, running out the clock on the time he was allotted before she could answer.

The nun smiled incredulously and threw up her hands when she was prevented from answering. “A cliffhanger,” she joked.

Then Rotika asked for a point of personal privilege, saying that after enduring eight years of Catholic school, he had always wanted to do that to a nun. So proud he was of his performance that he posted the video.

Rep. Todd Rotika’s questioning of Sister Simone Campbell begins at the 4:08 mark.