Washington — As the $700 billion bailout package wended its way through Congress and grew from a three-page proposal to a 442–page document, Jewish groups were able to fold into the final legislation two key social service bills that otherwise might have been ignored by lawmakers.
Officially, Jewish activists refrained from taking a position on the bailout package as a whole. But behind the scenes, lobbyists for Jewish philanthropies and for service providers worked with the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and with the Democratic and Republican caucuses in both chambers to make sure that some of the extra spending attached to the legislation was targeted to their causes. According to one of the activists, who was involved in the lobbying effort and requested anonymity: “This was probably the last legislative action of this Congress. This was our last lifeline.”
The bill in its final version included two provisions lobbied for by a coalition of charities in which Jewish groups played a major part. One is the extension of the IRA charitable rollover, which allows people aged 70 1⁄2 and older to give up to $100,000 from their IRA savings account without being taxed for the sum. This provision, which expired this year, already put more than $20 million in the funds of Jewish federations and is seen as a major fundraising vehicle for the groups.
The second provision is the mental health parity effort known as the Paul Wellstone Mental Health and Addiction Equity Act. It compels health insurance providers to give the same coverage to mental health problems and addiction treatment as is currently given to physical problems. “This is part of the process of normalizing mental health treatment. It shows this is no longer something that should be swept under the rug,” said William Daroff, vice president for public policy at the United Jewish Communities, which is the group that led Jewish efforts on these legislative issues.
These two additions played well with both groups that initially opposed the bailout proposal. For conservative Republicans, the IRA rollover was seen as another way to decrease taxes. For some Democrats — and Republicans — mental health parity has been an important cause. Minnesota’s Jim Ramstad, a moderate Republican who co-chairs the House’s Addiction, Treatment and Recovery Caucus, voted for the new version of the bill because of the mental health parity provision, saying that it was among the things that “caused me to reconsider my position.”
For UJC, the past few weeks proved positive for several legislative priorities that for months have been stuck in committees.
The Emergency Food and Shelter Program, which provides short-term cash assistance to individuals in need of food and housing, was increased to $200 million, despite attempts by President Bush’s administration to cut funding. The program is administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and has five major charities on its board, including UJC.
Another piece of legislation approved was the extension of Supplemental Security Income benefits for refugees in the process of naturalization. Originally the program was designed to provide assistance for up to seven years, until these refugees become citizens. Yet as the processing period for naturalization has grown longer, many immigrants lost their benefits before gaining citizenship. The new legislation will extend the period for an extra two years, thus restoring benefits for some 8,000 Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union who have already lost their eligibility for assistance.
Other measures approved by Congress and of interest to Jewish advocacy groups promoting social justice were the update of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which broadened the scope of the existing law, and the allocation of Homeland Security funds for not-for-profit groups. In recent years, this money has become a leading source of funding security needs for Jewish institutions across the country.
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.