In Opposing Federal Budget Cuts, Unity Is Elusive

‘We Haven’t Seen a Concerted Effort,’ Complains a Jewish Lobbyist

By Nathan Guttman

Published March 09, 2011, issue of March 18, 2011.
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Amid a raging national debate over the federal budget, Jewish organizations are rallying to save projects that are dear to the community from the chopping block.

But this year, battling budget cuts seems especially difficult, given the hostility to federal spending among congressional Republicans and a lack of clarity as to the bottom lines of the Obama administration and federal lawmakers.

Some Jewish communal officials say they would like to see a stronger effort by the Jewish community to make its voice heard in the budget fight.

“We haven’t seen the kind of concerted effort we should see on these issues,” said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Pelavin said that domestic issues are not always prioritized in the Jewish community, whereas foreign policy gets communal activists excited. “Look at how much energy, how many press releases and action alerts were put into the campaign against the U.N. resolution, and compare it to where we are on budget cuts,” he said, referring to Jewish groups’ efforts opposing a proposed Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement policies, which the United States ultimately vetoed.

“I would like to see more of an AIPAC-like effort, with key people and contacts across the nation putting more pressure on Democrats and Republicans,” said William Rapfogel, executive director of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, referring to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. He added that with “real commitment from the national leadership, you can mobilize the community.”

The country faces a projected federal budget deficit of $1.5 trillion in 2011, according to the Congressional Budget Office, or almost a tenth of GDP. The White House and congressional Democrats have presented plans that would freeze domestic discretionary spending and cut some $5 billion from domestic agencies. Last month, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed a budget bill that would slash some $60 billion in domestic spending.

Jewish groups have been alarmed by the proposed cuts, which would involve deep reductions in spending on some social service programs.

“I’ve been around for 26 years, and I am the most worried I’ve ever been,” said Mark Olshan, associate executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International, one of the nation’s largest providers of nursing homes for low-income elderly. B’nai B’rith is taking lawmakers and congressional staffers to visit nursing homes in their districts to encourage the preservation of funding for such facilities.

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella group representing national organizations and hundreds of local Jewish community relations councils, sent more than 300 activists to Capitol Hill on March 8, with a set of requests for sparing social safety net plans from cuts.

The Jewish Federations of North America has already brought to Washington delegations from New York, Philadelphia and Miami to speak with their congressional representatives. JFNA is also planning a major drive on the local level when lawmakers go home for their spring recess.

Other organizations have been sending out alerts to their members, urging them to contact their representatives and speak out.

But while many in the community are concerned about budget cuts, each group has its own set of priorities.

For JCPA, lobbying is concentrated on defeating President Obama’s proposal to cut funding for a program providing assistance in heating for low-income families, on limiting cuts to block grants that help local community services and on restoring funding for nutrition plans for children, women and seniors.

“We’re not asking for increase, we recognize that cuts will have to be made,” said Josh Protas, JCPA’s vice president and Washington director. “We’d really prefer to see that significant cuts not happen to programs providing critical services for vulnerable people.”

Meanwhile, the JFNA has placed at the top of its lobbying priorities list the battle against Obama’s proposal to reduce tax deductions for charitable contributions by the most affluent Americans, a change that it fears could negatively impact the flow of donations to its constituent Jewish community federations. “We believe the government policy should be focused on incentivizing contributions rather than on putting up stumbling blocks,” said William Daroff, JFNA’s vice president for public policy.

JFNA is also calling to eliminate proposed cuts for the Emergency Food and Shelter Program and to keep funding block grants used for social services.

For B’nai B’rith, the focus is on housing and services for the elderly. And for the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, which serves the New York region, the key issue is fighting cuts that could deal a blow to food pantries.

But Jewish groups understand that the biggest hit is still to come, once both parties begin discussing cuts to key entitlement programs. Republicans have already indicated they intend to take on the issue, and while the White House’s budget proposal did not touch on these programs, most believe the discussion is inevitable.

Many experts believe that savings in entitlements will be necessary to balance federal budgets. Spending on entitlements dwarfs domestic discretionary spending.

In a March 9 speech, Senator Charles Schumer, an influential New York Democrat, called for a bipartisan “reset” of the budget debate. He urged expanding beyond the current budget-cutting focus on domestic discretionary funding to also seeking savings in entitlement programs, trimming the defense budget and increasing tax revenues.

For Jewish groups, in particular the federation system, any change in funding for Medicaid or Medicare could have significant consequences. The federations’ affiliated agencies receive 75% of their public funding — some $7.5 billion per year — through these two programs.

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com


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