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Dana Milbank: If you preach about the poor, you don’t have a prayer in Washington

Praying for the poor is now apparently a firing offense in the corridors of power.

House Speaker Paul Ryan did not give a reason when his chief of staff this month told the Rev. Patrick Conroy, a Jesuit priest and House chaplain, to resign or face dismissal.

But we know this much: Ryan’s office complained to Conroy about a prayer he offered on the House floor during the tax overhaul debate that those who “continue to struggle” in American would not be made “losers under new tax laws.” Ryan admonished the priest after the Nov. 6 prayer, saying, “Padre, you just got to stay out of politics,” Conroy told the New York Times.

He was warned. He was given an explanation. Nevertheless, he persisted.

Over the five months since Ryan’s warning, Conroy dared to continue to preach the teachings of Jesus on the House floor:

He prayed to God that lawmakers would help “the least among us.”

He prayed for them to follow the example of St. Nicholas, “who fed the hungry, brought hope to the imprisoned, gave comfort to the lost.”

He admonished lawmakers “to serve other people in their need,” and “to pray for the unemployed and those who work but still struggle to make ends meet.”

After an immigration deal collapsed, he urged that “those who possess power here in Washington be mindful of those whom they represent who possess little or no power.”

He prayed for lawmakers to be “free of all prejudice” and, after the Parkland, Florida, school shooting, to “fulfill the hopes of those who long for peace and security for their children.”

But such “political” sentiments are apparently no longer compatible with service as House chaplain. “As you have requested, I hereby offer my resignation,” Conroy, named chaplain seven years ago by John Boehner, R-Ohio, wrote to Ryan on April 16. The ouster became public Thursday.

Only in this perverted time could a priest lose his job after committing the sin of crying out for justice for the poor.

But then, look around: Everywhere are the signs of a rising kleptocracy. The $1.5 trillion tax cut did make winners of corporations and the wealthy. And actions since then show that the Trump administration is making losers of the poor.

In a speech to bankers last week, Trump budget director Mick Mulvaney spoke of the “hierarchy” that he followed when he was in Congress: “If you were a lobbyist who never gave us money, I didn’t talk to you. If you were a lobbyist who gave us money, I might talk to you.”

Also last week, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt was on Capitol Hill, defiant as lawmakers grilled him about his lavish expense account (at a time when Trump wants to cut the EPA budget by 25 percent) and coziness with corporate lobbyists – most notably renting a condo at a sweetheart rate from the wife of an energy lobbyist. “I simply have not failed to take responsibility,” Pruitt said after blaming bureaucrats and others. “I’ve simply recited the facts.”

Meanwhile, Ben Carson, secretary of housing and urban development, last week proposed to triple the rent charged to the poorest families living in subsidized housing. “It’s clear from a budget perspective and a human point of view that the current system is unsustainable,” Carson explained. It’s hard to sustain help for the poor when you’re proposing to cut HUD spending by 14 percent next year – and when you’ve borrowed $1.5 trillion to give tax breaks mostly for the wealthy.

Conroy, of course, didn’t preach about such truly political things; he prayed, generically, for compassion. In the prayer that earned him Ryan’s reprimand, he merely reminded lawmakers that “the institutions and structures of our great nation guarantee the opportunities that have allowed some to achieve great success, while others continue to struggle.” He prayed that lawmakers “guarantee that there are not winners and losers under new tax laws, but benefits balanced and shared by all Americans.”

Such heresies continued. He prayed for “peace and reconciliation where those virtues are so sorely needed.” He prayed for them to rise above “self-interest” and “immediate political wins.” He prayed for them to promote “justice, equity and truth.”

He admonished them to “show respect for those with whom they disagree.”

On Friday morning, in the well for one of his last remaining prayers, Conroy prayed “for all people who have special needs” and “those who are sick” and for those “who serve in this House to be their best selves.”

Best selves? Respect? Reconciliation? No can do. Later Friday, Rep. Joseph Crowley of New York, a Democratic leader, rose to request an investigation into Ryan’s dismissal of Conroy. Republicans moved to quash the proposal – and, to nobody’s surprise, they prevailed.

If you preach about the poor in today’s Washington, you don’t have a prayer.

Dana Milbank is a columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter, @Milbank.