What Congress -- And All of Us -- Could Learn From Tim

A friend shared a story I love about our mutual friend and mentor Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr. some years ago. It was Christmas Eve and the pews at New York City’s Riverside Church were packed. The Christmas pageant was underway and had come to the point at which the innkeeper was to turn away Mary and Joseph with the resounding line, "There’s no room at the inn!"

The innkeeper was played by Tim, an earnest youth with Down syndrome. He had only one line to remember: "There's no room at the inn!" He had practiced it again and again with his parents and the pageant director and seemed to have mastered it.

So Tim stood at the altar, bathrobe costume firmly belted over his broad stomach, as Mary and Joseph made their way down the center aisle. They approached him, said their lines as rehearsed and waited for his reply. Tim's parents, the pageant director, and the whole congregation almost leaned forward as if willing him to remember his line.

"There’s no room at the inn!" Tim boomed out, just as rehearsed. But as Mary and Joseph turned on cue to travel further, Tim suddenly yelled, "Wait!" They turned back, startled, along with the congregation, and looked at him in surprise.

"You can stay at my house!" he called.

I am told Bill Coffin strode to the pulpit, said, "Amen," and sat down. It was the best sermon he never preached.

At a time of rampant hunger, homelessness, poverty, and joblessness in the richest nation on earth, it’s time for Members of Congress and all our political leaders to welcome the children and families in need into their and our nation’s inn. Instead, too many, playing a partisan game of chicken, are turning a deaf ear and cold eye to child suffering and creating gridlock in our political process. It is time to let them hear from us with our voices and votes.

Millions of children in our nation require emergency help in our recession ravaged economy to prevent irreparable harm to them and our nation’s future. In 2010, 16.4 million children were poor—950,000 more than the year before. More than one in three Black and Hispanic children were poor. One in four infants, toddlers, and preschoolers were poor. The out of control wealth and income gaps have left 46 million of our neighbors behind in poverty. About six million of them had no cash income in 2009, according to the New York Times, dependent on food stamps to keep the wolves of hunger outside their doors. More than one in five children is hungry.

In the 2010 Children’s Defense Fund Action Council® Nonpartisan Congressional Scorecard released this week, 104 members of Congress scored 100 percent on key votes for children and families. Please thank them. But 263 in both houses failed to reach a passing score and of those 136 scored zero. Please let them hear from you and insist with your voice and vote that they do better.

The seven votes tallied in the voting record include passage by the House of Representatives of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which extended access to health care to 32 million people, including 95 percent of all children; basic lifelines such as unemployment insurance; a higher federal reimbursement rate for Medicaid; and increased aid for low-income students struggling to benefit from higher education.

Most disappointing last year was a December 2010 vote in which important gains for low-income children in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act were held hostage to continuation of the unaffordable and profoundly unjust Bush era tax cuts for the wealthiest two percent of Americans. This boondoggle for the rich, which included increases in the poverty-reducing Earned Income and Child Tax Credits and fiscal relief for college students, provided an unconscionable average tax break for each millionaire household of $104,000. The estate tax was changed to benefit the very wealthiest families resulting in $68 billion in lost revenues – enough to provide every child a pre-K education. CDF’s Action Council scored this as a "no" vote given that the needs of children were ignored to give billions of tax payer dollars to the richest and most powerful Americans. This pattern is repeated in the continued political gridlock in Washington where attention to the needs of unemployed and struggling families is conditioned on demands to give more money to powerful special interests.

The crippling and unjust income and wealth gaps are significantly driven and exacerbated by the "Taxpayer Protection Pledge" which the CDF Action Council counts as an overarching assault on children and the nation’s future in its 2010 voting scorecard. Americans for Tax Reform created the pledge 25 years ago and "asks every candidate for elected office on the state and federal level to make a written commitment to their constituents to oppose and vote against tax increases." The 212 members of Congress who as of 2010 had signed this no-new-taxes pledge are abrogating their responsibility to our nation. They protect the safety net for the wealthy, but leave the safety nets for the poor in tatters.

In this special season, I hope Congress will reflect on whether poor babies have a place in America’s inn—their inn too—or whether they must continue to go hungry and homeless. I also hope voters will raise a ruckus for fairer investment priorities to restore America’s dream for the next generation. It’s time to challenge members of Congress who vote to balance the budget on the backs of babies and children while demanding not a new tax dime from billionaires and rich corporations.

Check the CDF Action Council Nonpartisan Congressional Scorecard to see how your senators and representative did in 2010, and watch for the 2011 CDF Action Council Nonpartisan Congressional Scorecard early next year.