Will election-year politics drown out Jewish voices?

WASHINGTON, Jan. 31 (JTA) — Jewish groups are worried that legislation they have been supporting, like gun control and hate crime laws, will not get the attention of an ever-fractious Congress debating the budget in an election year.

“The number of things besides the budget that Congress can get to is limited,” said Richard Foltin, the American Jewish Committee’s legislative director and counsel.

The AJCommittee and other groups estimate there will be about 100 legislative days in this session, and the budget will take center stage, with little time left over for debate on policy issues.

The presidential campaign, combined with congressional races, will all play a part in determining which issues the legislators will consider, making for a turbulent fall.

An election year affects the status of all the different pieces of legislation “every day and in every way,” said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

“We have to be realistic,” Pelavin said. “It’s unlikely we’ll see significant advances.” While he doesn’t expect the status quo to change, Pelavin did say that there might be a sleeper issue or two that could interest Congress.

In fact, depending on the political winds of the presidential and congressional campaigns, some issues might get extra attention if congressional leaders attempt to use them to gain political points come November.

Hate crime prevention may top the list for some groups — and for the moment it is at least enjoying momentum and support from many members of Congress and President Clinton. In his State of the Union address last week, the president mentioned recent high-profile shootings of African Americans, Asian Americans, and Jewish children.

“This is not the American way. We must draw the line,” Clinton said. “I ask you to draw that line by passing without delay the Hate Crimes Prevention Act.”

Jewish and civil rights groups plan to band together to push for passage of the act. Under current law, the Justice Department is limited to prosecuting crimes that occur in conjunction with a federally protected activity, such as voting. The proposed bill would make it easier for the federal government to investigate and prosecute hate crimes.

In 1998 there were 7,755 hate crimes reported, and 18 percent of hate crime victims were targeted because of their religion, according to FBI figures.

Michael Lieberman, the Anti-Defamation League’s Washington counsel, said there is considerable grass-roots support for the bill, and it has a good chance of passing.

Lieberman expects the Senate, which passed its version of the legislation last session, to attempt to pass it again. The numbers to pass the bill still appear to be short in the House of Representatives, and the chances for passage may not have improved much since last session.

Strong Republican opposition has dogged the bill because it would extend federal protection to women, people with disabilities, and gays and lesbians. GOP leaders say they do not want to create a special class of citizens and that these groups are already protected under existing laws.

The Workplace Religious Freedom Act is another issue that could have a chance of gaining ground this session, though it too has encountered opposition, particularly from business interests that do not want further federal restrictions on employment practices.

The bill, co-sponsored by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) is intended to protect workers from on-the-job discrimination related to religious beliefs and practices. The current law requires employers to reasonably accommodate the religious belief of an employee or prospective employee, unless doing so would impose an “undue hardship.”

Courts have had problems with this terminology, so the proposed new standard would require employers to prove that making an accommodation to a worker would pose a “significant difficulty or expense.”

A Kerry staffer said there will be an attempt to bring business and labor together on the issue, and there is a chance the bill could be passed.

Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs, says the legislation’s bipartisan support may be particularly helpful in an election year.

Gun control remains a hot topic for many groups, but the chance to pass new laws has slipped by before.

“It’s unknown whether there’s the political will to pass meaningful gun control legislation now,” said Matthew Dorf, director of governmental and public affairs at the American Jewish Congress.

Together with other organizations, the AJCongress wants to close the “gun show loophole,” which allows nonlicensed individuals to sell guns at shows without background checks for buyers.

In his State of the Union address, Clinton said he wants common sense gun legislation to be the “very next order of business.” The president wants to fund research into smart gun technology and require all new handgun buyers to have a photo license indicating they have passed a background check and a gun safety course. But, perhaps sensing that this Congress would not pass such measures, Clinton also asked that current gun laws be made stronger.

The issue of charitable choice has come under fire and also may be addressed. Part of the 1996 welfare law, charitable choice allows religious agencies to receive government funds to provide social services. But the law did not ensure that church functions and state monies stay separated, and now charitable choice provisions are being attached to a variety of bills.

Most Jewish activists want some kind of security so services in federally funded programs do not become tied up with potentially coercive religious practices.

“We are against any government funding where there is promulgating of a religious message,” said the AJCommittee’s Foltin. “Are safeguards in place? No.”

Other church-state issues, such as school vouchers and prayer in schools, also could come up during this session as legislators may attempt to attach amendments to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which must be reauthorized this year. These and other related issues, such as public funding for private religious education, tend to be somewhat divisive in the Jewish community.

On the international front, all groups are watching the Israeli-Syrian negotiations closely, and many are preparing to help Israel should there be a peace agreement. Kenneth Bricker of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee said members of Congress appear “cautiously supportive” of assisting Israel, which has requested $16.9 billion in military assistance.

There are many more policies Jewish groups would like to see considered, in areas ranging from the environment to foreign aid. But even if there are more issues than legislative days, activists remain optimistic about their chances to bring some parts of their agendas to the fore and possibly accomplish long-awaited goals.

“There’s going to be a lot of activity very quickly,” predicts the AJCongress’ Dorf. “If policy is going to be made, it will be made sooner rather than later.”

NEXT STORY