WASHINGTON — As Congress completes plans to cut deeply into programs that provide basic assistance to low-income families and vulnerable individuals, United Jewish Communities, the Jewish community’s main provider of social services, is focusing on a narrow lobbying agenda on Capitol Hill. The organization is not mobilizing its large network of local federations to oppose Congress’s cuts.
This week, the House of Representatives and the Senate were working out final details of a far-reaching plan to slash between $39 billion and $50 billion over the next five years from such programs as Medicaid, Medicare, food stamps, student loans and heating fuel subsidies. The two chambers’ versions vary — the House plan is more ambitious, proposing significant changes in Medicaid and in other welfare program rules — but both prescribe deep cuts. Both houses would combine the spending cuts with a $70 billion tax cut.
Critics say the plans will hurt the poor while hardly making a dent in the federal deficit.
“I would hope that we would all join forces at this time to prevent these cuts, which are irreconcilable with what the Jewish community has been fighting to achieve for years and irreconcilable with our Jewish values,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. A vocal opponent of the proposed cuts, Saperstein joined other religious leaders in Washington this week to characterize the proposed budget cuts as “sinful.”
Saperstein’s center and several other Jewish groups, including the National Council of Jewish Women and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, have issued “action alerts” calling on members to contact their representatives in Congress to oppose the cuts.
But UJC, America’s largest Jewish organization and the one most intensely involved with providing services to the needy, has not done so. UJC lobbyists are focusing on attempts to change one specific provision in Congress’s proposed mini reform of Medicaid, the nation’s chief health care program for the poor.
“We are trying to be strategic,” said Stephan Kline, director of government affairs in UJC’s Washington office. The question is, he said, “given some degree of political influence, where could it be most effective? Taking it on wholesale at this point is probably not most likely to lead to a significant success.”
UJC lobbyists are focusing their efforts on reversing a House proposal that would restrict Medicaid applicants’ ability to achieve eligibility by transferring assets. The House proposal is supported by the White House and by the National Governors Association and was endorsed by a federal commission studying Medicaid reform.
Under current law, seniors who transfer assets within three years before applying for the program are barred from Medicaid coverage for a length of time that begins at the date of transfer. The length of the ban is based on the amount transferred.
Under the Republican proposal, the three-year “look-back” period would be extended to five years. The starting date for the disqualification period would be moved from the transfer date to the application date. The impact on UJC-affiliated nursing homes would be considerable, Kline said, because they would have to absorb the cost of seniors whose asset transfers bar them from Medicaid coverage.
The UJC approach has its defenders in the Jewish social-service community. UJC has been “very active on Medicaid,” but mostly behind the scenes, said William Rapfogel, executive director of New York’s Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty. Rapfogel said he is helping UJC develop its strategy. Of all the programs being cut, he said, “Medicaid, at least as we see it, is the most significant program, and we are advocating both with the administration and with Congress” to avoid cuts that would reduce services to the poor.
Jewish activists familiar with the inner workings of UJC suggest another explanation for the organization avoiding a large-scale mobilization against congressional cuts. “There are two issues at work, which are interconnected,” said a senior official at a national Jewish agency, speaking on condition of anonymity. “One is that the [UJC’s] lay leadership, many of the large donors, wants to maintain its close relations with Republicans in government. The other is the notion that with this particular administration, you get a lot more done in working behind the scenes with honey than with vinegar.”
UJC and its affiliated federations receive more than $7 billion annually in federal funds for their social services.
Jewish groups — like others lobbying against or for the cuts — are focusing on moderate Republicans, mainly in the Senate. In Minnesota, a group of 14 Jewish community leaders and rabbis from the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative branches of Judaism signed a letter this week coordinated by the Religious Action Center, calling on Republican Senator Norm Coleman to oppose the cuts. “As representatives of the Minnesota Jewish community, we ask that you oppose both the spending proposals and tax-cut proposal in the budget reconciliation package,” the letter said.