Washington - The new budget presented Monday by President Bush to Congress has Jewish groups worried over proposed cuts in social spending.
Bush’s proposed $3 trillion budget for 2008, which will now be debated in Congress, includes a significant increase in spending on defense, national security and homeland security, while cutting back on Medicare, Medicaid and housing for the elderly and families in need. The budget also reflects the rising costs of funding tax cuts, which were enacted in the first years of the Bush administration.
Jewish groups are still trying to calculate the exact impact the proposed cuts will have on the community and its institutions. But communal insiders say it is already clear that Jewish groups would probably oppose any budget similar to the one proposed by the president.
“As presented, this is not a budget that we would support in its entirety,” said William Daroff, Washington director of United Jewish Communities. UJC is the national association of federated Jewish charities. “There are cutbacks in the president’s proposal that will affect our community’s needs,” Daroff said.
For the Jewish community, one of the most troubling aspects of the budget proposal is the $100 billion-plus cut in Medicare and Medicaid funding. These cuts, if approved, would lead to a significant reduction in federal funding for hospitals and nursing homes, which represent, for many Jewish communities, the bulk of their social services operations.
Another source of concern is the proposed cut in block grants that are given by the federal government to state and local authorities for social programs. Under Bush’s budget, the Social Services Block Grants, which are used to pay for elderly care, assistance for refugees and adoption services, would be reduced to $1.2 billion from $1.7 billion. The Community Development Block Grants would be cut to $3 billion from $4.178 billion and the Community Services Block Grant would be eliminated altogether. Funding for Child Care and Development and Mental Health Block Grants will remain at the same nominal level, failing to take into account increases in costs and in population.
On housing, Jewish organizations voiced dismay over the proposed cuts in programs for independent living for seniors and for group homes for the disabled.
Jewish groups are also looking into the proposed budget for homeland security, which will be increased by 10% but at the same time will reduce funding for local initiatives. The proposed $1.2 billion reduction in programs for local protection will affect Jewish not-for-profits, which are seen as especially vulnerable to terror threats. In the past year there were several attempts to strike Jewish institutions, including the July 29 shooting incident at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, which left one person dead and five wounded.
Senator Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, criticized Bush’s budget for cutting security funds for not-for-profits. “We must help protect our hospitals, schools, community centers, synagogues and churches from terrorist violence,” Mikulski said in a statement.
Bush’s budget proposal also calls for reforms that would limit the ability of lawmakers to use a process know as earmarking to fund projects in their home districts. While Jewish groups voiced support for efforts to increase transparency in the process, they are also lobbying against eliminating earmarks, which are responsible for many communal programs such as those making housing available for independent elderly in their own community.
In a letter to all members of Congress, distributed by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, 16 major organizations called on legislators to take into consideration social needs when debating the new budget.
“We believe that budgets are documents which reflect the values and priorities of those who create them,” the letter read. “With the increase in hunger in American households, housing costs rising faster than wages and more than 47 million Americans lacking adequate health care coverage, funding for social services to assist these individuals is more critical than ever. We urge you to advocate for a budget that reflects these realities.”
This is the first time that Bush faces a Democratic-led Congress when trying to get his budget approved. Though even when Republicans were in control of Congress, the budget went through major changes before reaching the president’s desk for signing, it is now expected to be even more difficult for the administration to pass the budget as proposed.
Democrats have already made it clear that while supporting funding for social issues, they are committed to keeping a balanced budget and will not push for programs without providing resources for funding them.
“Whoever expected that now that Democrats are in control, everything is going to get funded, is in for a surprise,” said a Jewish lobbyist active on domestic issues.
A Democratic source added that the congressional leadership is committed both to balancing the budget and to funding programs that help the weakest parts of the American society. “We agree with the Jewish community on many domestic issues, and we will discuss ways to see how their concerns can fit in,” the Democratic source said.
Daroff believes that, eventually, many of the concerns of the Jewish community will be addressed during the lengthy debate over the budget.
“Our agenda enjoys overwhelming bipartisan support,” Daroff said. “I’m optimistic about the future, even if we find some of the specifics in the proposal troubling.”
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.