Talk of Slashing Earmarks and Foreign Aid Has Israel Advocates Concerned

By Nathan Guttman

Published October 16, 2008, issue of October 24, 2008.
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Washington — Promises made by the presidential candidates to slash earmark spending have sent jitters through the Jewish and pro-Israel communities, raising concerns that programs dear to them might be axed by the next administration.

Jewish officials estimate that earmark funding for social service programs total several million dollars a year, a fraction of the estimated $18 billion in annual earmark spending. The billions of dollars spent in foreign aid to Israel is considered by some as an earmark, but both major party presidential candidates promised it would not be touched.

Legislative earmarks are generally defined as spending that is designated for a specific cause. In some cases, lawmakers use earmarks to fund local pet projects, but much of the earmark spending is directed to programs that did not fit in the language of regular spending bills.

Republican presidential candidate John McCain has made cutting earmark spending a centerpiece of his economic plan and vowed to veto any earmarks that arrive at his desk. His Democratic opponent, Barack Obama, also has promised to cut some earmark spending, although he opposes a total ban on the system.

Lobbyists for Jewish groups working on Capitol Hill and social service providers within the Jewish community are following McCain’s statements with growing concern. They fear that the bad reputation given to earmarks by projects such as the “Bridge to Nowhere” misrepresents the positive aspects of a system that funds needed programs.

Among the programs that could be affected is the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in southern Israel, which educates Jewish and Arab students on regional environmental challenges and brings together future leaders of both sides. Last year, the institute, supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development, received $400,000, all of it in earmarked aid.

“Earmarks for spending of U.S. tax dollars for conflict management and mitigation in the Middle East is money well spent,” said Rabbi Michael Cohen, director of special project for the Friends of Arava Institute.

Jewish activists said there are dozens of other community programs that are being funded through earmarks, and many of them are high on the priority lists of Jewish lobbyists. One such program is the Naturally Occurring Retirement Community or NORC, a project founded by the United Jewish Federations to help elderly residents remain in their neighborhoods while benefiting from health and social assistance. Since 2002, the program, which was praised by lawmakers for its success, has received nearly $30 million in earmarks.

There are at least 10 other Jewish community projects, totaling $2 million in earmarks, that are awaiting their appropriations. Among these projects are assistance for Gulf Coast residents dealing with the effects of Hurricane Katrina; homelessness prevention programs, and community-based help for adults with developmental disabilities.

“A loss of these resources would greatly diminish research and development in the areas of health and human services and would be felt across the country, not just within the Jewish community,” said William Daroff, UJC’s vice president for public policy. Daroff added “all UJC-directed earmarks that have been funded and are fully vetted by members of the (Congressional) appropriations committee and have stood up to the public litmus test.”

Since definitions of earmarks vary, it is unclear how U.S. foreign aid to Israel should be considered. A 2005 report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) included as earmarks the spending for specific countries under the foreign operations bill. Currently, most watchdog groups and budget analysts do not consider foreign aid as an earmark. “It is such a huge sum that you can’t really call it an earmark. You don’t usually find earmarks in the billions,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a non-profit that monitors government spending.

Both candidates have pledged to continue foreign aid to Israel at its current level, which was set in a joint Memorandum of Understanding signed last year. The agreement provides Israel with $30 billion over the next 10 years, funding designed to improve Israel’s defense abilities and maintain its military edge. Including foreign operations as part of the earmark calculation would mean that aid to Israel consists of almost 6 percent of the entire earmark spending, based on the 2005 CRS analysis.

Designating aid to Israel as an earmark dates to the late 1970s and was meant to ensure that funds approved through the foreign operations bill would go directly to Israel and would not be affected by any across-the-board cut in America’s foreign aid.

McCain has made it clear he backs the new aid agreement. “I strongly support the increase in military aid to Israel,” he said to Aipac supporters in a speech on June 2.

Campaign officials have said publicly and in talks with pro-Israeli activists that when McCain talks about vetoing every earmark, he does not mean cutting aid to Israel or changing the conditions under which assistance is given.

A spokesman for the McCain campaign did not respond to inquiries by the Forward regarding the candidate’s plans to cut earmark spending.

Obama also has voiced his support for aid to Israel and said it will not be affected by the economic downturn. He issued the statement after his vice presidential running mate, Sen. Joe Biden, said in a debate on Oct. 2 that “the one thing we might have to slow down is a commitment we made to double foreign assistance.”

In a statement, Obama campaign spokeswoman Wendy Morigi said: “As President, Barack Obama would continue his consistent record of support for foreign assistance to Israel.” The statement added that the only plan that could suffer from the economic situation was the proposed doubling of the foreign aid budget to $50 billion.

“While the new financial constraints might mean it will take longer to achieve this goal, Barack Obama remains committed to implementing the Memorandum of Understanding increasing aid to Israel to $30 billion over 10 years,” the statement read.

“I don’t see how any of the candidates’ commitments regarding earmarks will have an effect on aid to Israel or to other countries,” said Ellis of the Taxpayers for Common Sense. “Both candidates do not see the foreign aid as part of their earmark calculations.”

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