Dear Senator Manchin,
I hope this letter finds you well. I’m writing as a person of faith, mandated to care for the poor and guided by the values of love, truth, and justice. I’m writing to you, but this letter is for all who the media has reported to be working with you on a “compromise bill.” I hope you will share with the other senators.
Your desire to do something to help provide Covid relief is noble and necessary. However, our movement is deeply concerned about the proposal to cut unemployment to $300 dollars, which is just $7.50 an hour. Will this plan guarantee health care for those impacted by Covid? Does it provide sick leave and protect people from evictions? I heard you say the bill should have been $1.2 trillion, but the truth is that it should be at least $3 trillion. A bill that is only $900 billion is more than $2 trillion short of what is needed. The banks and corporations got everything they asked for in the CARES Act, plus billions in debt relief from the Federal Reserve. And let us not forget that even before Covid, there were 140 million poor and low-wealth people in this nation—66 million white, 26 million black, and millions of others. Two hundred and fifty thousand Americans have been dying each year from poverty because of years of bad public policy. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, we give socialism to the wealthy and rugged individualism to the poor.
Now, I admire you for trying to get something done. But it is shameful to call this a “compromise” when the poor people who are dying the most and working the hardest to keep the country running will get the least. Why not compromise on what the wealthy get? You are, like me, a Christian man, and you know Jesus said to help the least first. Our own Constitution says to establish justice first. But the Senate has been helping the wealthy first and establishing injustice first.
The Republicans who have forced this bill down to $900 billion are sinful and shameful. We have members of our campaign in the mountains of West Virginia, where coal miners fought to their deaths for justice. They are appalled by this notion of just “getting something done” rather than fighting all out to get the right thing done. It feels to many like some senators just want to soothe their consciences before Christmas.
I am ashamed of this nation. I know you want to do the right thing, and Republicans are tying your hands, but please don’t call this a “centrist plan.” It’s more cynical than centrist. It’s damn near criminal that millions are hurting, billionaires are getting richer, sick people are dying, poverty is expanding, and the Senate can’t do the right thing. This so-called “centrist” compromise is $2.2 trillion less than the Heroes Act and some say it’s a “good deal.”
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Corporations have gotten everything they asked for and more, while one in eight Americans reported going hungry last week!
When will we have politicians who love the people and refuse to play games with people’s lives? When will we have senators who will stand up publicly with righteous indignation and take McConnell to task and call on the people to take him on every day until he changes? What if the senators who know right from wrong would join people by the thousands, driving around the house of McConnell every day, all day, nonviolently demonstrating our discontent by blowing horns in caravans carrying caskets to remember the dead?
Many poor and low-wealth people believe you should not compromise. Instead, use your position and influence to lay out in every form of media the proposal that ought to be and let the bottom fall out so that the entire nation can see how ruthless McConnell and his allies are. Many believe this would fundamentally shift the narrative in this nation and would create a political awakening that would drive turnout in Georgia and give President Biden the moral atmosphere to engage what needs to be done, in much the same way that FDR was able to approach the New Deal because people could see the moral bankruptcy of the 1920s.
Roosevelt said that in order to fight “against economic tyranny such as this, the American citizen could appeal only to the organized power of Government. The collapse of 1929 showed up the despotism for what it was. The election of 1932 was the people’s mandate to end it.” FDR understood that he was given a mandate to refuse compromise with the powerful and the wealthy who had abandoned poor and working people. “These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America,” he said. “What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power. Our allegiance to American institutions requires the overthrow of this kind of power. In vain they seek to hide behind the Flag and the Constitution. In their blindness they forget what the Flag and the Constitution stand for. Now, as always, they stand for democracy, not tyranny; for freedom, not subjection; and against a dictatorship by mob rule and the over-privileged alike.”
If those of you in the Senate are willing to stand strong and wage a principled fight, some of your Republican colleagues may be willing to change. But if they can always force a compromise that ultimately covers up their tyranny, they will never change.
I know it might seem strange for me as a preacher to take this position, refusing to just accept something and choosing to let the bottom fall out, even if it produces more suffering temporarily. But this wisdom comes from my faith. Do you remember the story? Moses would not compromise with Pharaoh. “Let my people go” meant all, not some. And it resulted in more temporary suffering on the path to full freedom.
We must not forget that this is the week when Rosa Parks sat down on a bus and an entire community walked 381 days in the face of violence because they refused to compromise. Doing so, they exposed Jim Crow to the world and won new allies. If they had compromised for a more “humane” application of segregation or more “Negro” bus drivers, we may have never had the kind of civil rights movement that came into being.
And perhaps you recall what the Scripture, in St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians, says about how Jesus could have compromised and not suffered, but it was important to expose the evil and injustice openly.
The point I’m making is that many poor and low-wealth people would rather see you and others fight—and they would rather join you in that fight—than to see a so-called compromise that is not even half of what’s needed touted as easing pain though most of the pain would continue anyway. We hear you and others saying now that we have to do something, but when “centrist” Republicans had the leverage of the Supreme Court seat, they demanded nothing. Now they want to pass the least amount possible and act as though it is a compassionate act. They are all over the TV now touting the $900 billion. Where were they when the HEROES Act was first passed? For them to act as though they are coming to the rescue now is like throwing a drowning man a life raft with a hole in it when you could have given him a lifeboat with an inboard motor. It is cruel hypocrisy.
You may get something done, but we would be mistaken as a society to celebrate your efforts and compromise. We cannot normalize the celebration of mediocre and always accept the least common denominator when it comes to poor and low-wealth people and the essential workers of this nation. If your gang of six had truly been moved by conscience, stood together, and fought for just relief before the Barrett confirmation, McConnell would have bowed and the president would have given in.
This is not principled compromise but pitiful capitulation to a mean-spirited majority leader who is allowing even his own constituents from the mountains to the cities to suffer while he caters to the greedy and those with a lust for power above all else.
To have to compromise in the midst of a deadly pandemic with over 265,000 dead feels like the Three-Fifths Compromise during slavery. It was wrong then, and compromise is wrong now. What is needed is character. McConnell and any who have helped the wealthy while they let the poor suffer and die will face the judgment of God. I say this with great love and tears for this nation. But the blood of all those who suffer and die needlessly is on the hands of the US Senate.
Many of us believe that you all have not fought McConnell hard enough in the open. We know instinctively that if this disease was destroying the lives of the wealthy, the lives of senators and their families, there would be an all-out public battle. Imagine for a moment that suddenly the pandemic caused every senator to lose their income, their food, their homes, their health, and their lives. If that happened and McConnell was blocking help, there would be calls for the people to rise up, to march on the communities where politicians live. If there was compromise after this kind of fight, and it was a principled compromise that cut what the wealthy get so that the poor and low-wealth have everything they need, perhaps that could be morally justified. But the compromise being suggested now is morally indefensible, constitutionally inconsistent, and economically insane.
Those of you who sit in the Senate can refuse to act or make backroom deals because the poor and low-wealth are so thoroughly dismissed. The word “poor” is hardly if ever even spoken on the Senate floor. And because the primary pain is felt by poor and low-wealth people and communities like those in Appalachia and Alabama, stalling and compromise have been the order of the day. This is the great sin of this moment.
All those who are refusing to do right by the least of these are under judgment, not just in the hereafter but now. James, the brother of Jesus, speaking as led by the Spirit of God, said it like this:
Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.
With deep love for the people and hope that you will hear the Spirit of the Lord through my feeble words and human effort,
Co-Chair, Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival