With Congress plunging into talks to avoid the much-feared fiscal cliff, the Jewish community’s umbrella organization for policy is cautiously weighing in.
In a letter to Congress, Rabbi Steve Gutow, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs’s president and CEO, urged lawmakers to keep in mind the impact of budget cuts on the poor and needy when sitting down to discuss a compromise.
He pointedly avoided the biggest question of all: whether taxes should go up for the wealthiest Americans.
“We recognize the significant challenges facing our country’s fiscal stability and the immense pressures to reduce the deficit,” the letter to Congress states, “still we call on you to ensure that, in a nation as wealthy and generous as ours, every American is simultaneously provided the opportunity to fulfill his or her potential, and no American must live in a state of destitution.”
Specifically, the JCPA is calling on members of Congress to avoid cuts to anti-poverty programs including food stamps (SNAP), Earned Income Tax Credit, unemployment insurance, nutrition programs for women and children, home energy assistance, and Medicaid. The group also asked that programs providing opportunities for those in need, such as Pell grants, will be spared from cuts.
“We believe that deficit reduction should be carefully calibrated to ensure that the most vulnerable among us are protected, opportunity for all is promoted, and justice is pursued,” Gutow wrote.
While stressing the need to solve the budget deficit in a “bipartisan, civil fashion,” the group, carefully tiptoed around the issue of tax hikes and made no reference to the administration position which proposed raising taxes for those earning more than $250,000 as a crucial measure alongside cuts in government spending. This seems to be in line with the Jewish federations umbrella group which has also avoided taking a stand on the issue of tax increases.
Jewish organizations generally don’t react quickly to events unless they involve terror attacks in Israel or blatantly anti-Semitic statements by foreign dictators, but one organization managed to whip out a response to President Obama’s jobs speech—a favorable one, as it happens—less than an hour after the president finished speaking.
The quick response was from the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which calls itself “the public affairs arm of the organized Jewish community.” Its Chair and President (lay leader and staff director in Jewish organization-speak) issued a statement via mass e-mail blast at 8:34 p.m., a little over 45 minutes after the speech ended, endorsing the spending parts of Obama’s $450 billion plan.
The statement quotes the Chair, Dr. Conrad Giles, urging Congress to “begin work on the President’s recommendations for improvements to our homes, schools, and roads without delay” and to re-hire teachers and health care providers — while adding the council’s own appeal for more police and firefighters. Here’s how Giles is quoted:
“The jobs crisis exists throughout the entire country. No community, rural or urban, big or small, has been untouched. With such widespread need for new job opportunities and assistance, Congress should begin work on the President’s recommendations for improvements to our homes, schools, and roads without delay.”
Also quoted is the council’s President, Rabbi Steve Gutow, endorsing the part about extending unemployment insurance. The statement doesn’t address the tax-cut parts of the plan. At the conclusion, there’s a stab at bi-partisanship:
”Now is the time for a broad, national effort to build a pathway of prosperity for all Americans. We will continue to work with Congress and the Administration to grow our economy and ensure opportunities for those left in the Great Recession’s wake.”
The endorsement is unusual for several reasons. Supporting the president used to be an expression of patriotism, but these days it’s generally seen as a partisan act. In consequence, most Jewish non-profits tend to steer well clear of domestic issues. It’s not that they’re really afraid of losing their tax-free status. They used to talk about economic and social justice all the time. Other religious groups are unabashedly ideological, in both directions. But the big Jewish agencies are afraid of conservative donors getting mad and walking away with their money.
So why is this Jewish organization different from all other Jewish organizations?
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