Jewish Groups Turning Up the Heat Against Balanced Budget Amendment

Jewish groups have joined the chorus of protests on Capitol Hill against a proposed constitutional amendment to require a balanced federal budget, charging it would eviscerate critical social programs and could jeopardize foreign aid.

In a high-gear campaign waged both inside Washington and at the grass-roots level, they have sounded a warning against trivializing the Constitution by imposing on it specific fiscal policies.

The House of Representatives was scheduled to vote Thursday on the amendment and several alternatives to it. While passage looked sure only two weeks ago, fierce last-minute lobbying by members and outside coalitions made the results too close to call.

A two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate is required for passage of the amendment, which must then be ratified by state legislatures.

The proposal has garnered broad support among House members, who are eager to demonstrate fiscal responsibility to a public cynical about their leadership and increasingly disturbed by a deficit projected to reach a record $400 billion this year.

But Jewish activists and other opponents of the measure claim the amendment is a quick political fix and no substitute for the hard choices real leadership requires. They argue that legislating sound budgets, not tampering with the Constitution, is the way to conduct sound fiscal policy.

CONCERN ABOUT DRASTIC CUTS

“A balanced budget amendment is no substitute for the political courage needed to make the tough policy decisions necessary to reduce the budget deficit,” Robert Lifton, president of the American Jewish Congress, said in a letter circulated to all members of Congress.

“We strongly believe that deficit reductions should be achieved through the legislative process, and not by enshrining one particular economic policy in the Constitution,” he wrote.

“As people who rely on the Constitution to protect our rights, we believe it is bad to monkey around with the Constitution,” echoed Julie Nusbaum, legislative coordinator for the National Council of Jewish Women.

The council on Tuesday spearheaded a letter drop on Capitol Hill from Jewish organizations protesting the amendment, prompted not only by concern for the Constitution.

“We are concerned about drastic and indiscriminate cuts, and that critically needed federal programs will be eliminated,” Nusbaum explained. “We thought it was important to weigh in.”

The leading amendment, sponsored by conservative Rep. Charles Stenholm (D-Texas), would bar government spending in excess of revenues, unless approved by three-fifths of the House and Senate. It also would require a three-fifths majority in both bodies to increase the limit on the federal debt.

Congress would be required by the amendment to enact roughly $560 billion in spending cuts or tax increases over five years, according to the House Budget Committee.

The brunt of the cuts would fall on non-defense discretionary programs, such as education and social services, and would likely slow economic growth and increase unemployment, according to many prominent economists.

“We are persuaded that an amendment requiring the federal budget be balanced every year is likely to damage the economy rather than strengthen it,” Diana Aviv, associate executive vice chair of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, and Gary Rubin, director of national affairs at the American Jewish Committee, said in a recent opinion piece.

NJCRAC GALVANIZED ACTION

They argued that the poor would be the hardest hit, while there could be grave consequences for U.S. aid to Israel.

Aviv and Rubin said more responsible deficit reduction could be achieved through containing rising health care costs, shifting defense spending to domestic programs and promoting economic growth through investment in education and the country’s infrastructure.

In an interview, Aviv said the amendment would pit Jewish advocacy groups against each other for scarce resources, “and that would be a catastrophe.”

Jewish opposition to a balanced budget amendment has been long held, but was galvanized two weeks ago at a meeting organized by NJCRAC in New York.

That meeting was called, Aviv said, when it became clear congressional momentum in support of the amendment had mounted, even among “stalwarts” traditionally against it.

Aviv said the support for the amendment was driven by fear in a tense political climate. She said members were reluctant to go on record against what looked like a tough vote for fiscal discipline. In fact, she argued, it was a “free and easy vote” because the hard choices on spending cuts and tax hikes were deferred.

Aviv arranged for dozens of representatives of Jewish organizations and service providers at the NJCRAC meeting to hear Robert Greenstein, director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, analyze the amendment. It was after the analysis that they “agreed to turn up the heat,” said Mark Pelavin, Washington representative of the American Jewish Congress.

“At that point, it was not something the Jewish community was talking about that much,” said Pelavin. After the Greenstein presentation, “we decided to place it squarely at the top of the Jewish agenda. It cuts across all the issues of concern to the Jewish community,” he said.

‘DEVASTATING’ CONSEQUENCES

Greenstein has argued the amendment could damage the economy, distort national priorities and result in reductions in needed investments.

The amendment “would do irreparable damage to our nation’s already ailing economy,” Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, wrote in a letter to members of Congress.

“Rather than being the panacea some purport it can be,” the amendment would have consequences that “would be devastating to both domestic and international programs,” he wrote.

In the Senate, the amendment’s prospects for passage are dimmed by the vehement opposition of Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine) and Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.).

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