The Tax-Spending Squeeze


Jewish groups are caught between a rock and a budgetary hard place as a battered Obama administration battles resurgent congressional Republicans over tax-and-spending issues that threaten to produce the sharpest cuts to health and human service programs in history.

In private, many Jewish leaders worry that extending Bush-era tax cuts, particularly for wealthier Americans, will make it much harder for the nation to climb out of the seemingly bottomless deficit hole and intensify pressure to cut what one Jewish activist this week called the “low-hanging fruit” of programs serving the nation’s neediest — and least powerful — citizens.

In public, most are reluctant to speak about the ongoing battle over extending the tax cuts for the most affluent. Only the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism have taken positions on the controversial issue. The reasons for that silence range from fear of retribution from big contributors to the complexity of an issue that causes strife even among prominent economists to a reluctance to step into what is shaping up as the most bitterly partisan political battles in recent memory.

“So many of our issues depend on working with both parties, and more and more we find ourselves in a situation where if we say anything on tax cuts, we infuriate one party or the other and become an enemy,” said a government affairs official with one major Jewish group who asked not to be identified. “Sure, there’s pressure from big contributors not to say anything against tax cuts, but there’s also a very real concern that this is the kind of issue that can only make it harder for us to do our jobs in Congress.”

Jewish leaders fear getting caught in a politically deadly crossfire. If they oppose tax cuts they risk angering both wealthy contributors and Republican lawmakers, but if they don’t speak out they risk infuriating Democratic friends who see the tax issue as pivotal.

Jane Ramsey, executive director of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, a Jewish social action organization in Chicago, said, “I think Jewish organizations have to look at the revenue side as well as at protecting particular services. If we want to protect services that help children, that help the elderly, we have to look at tax policies that are not regressive, and not just advocate narrowly for the programs that serve our needs.”

In cities like Chicago, continuing high demand for services has combined with a major state budget emergency to put numerous health and social service programs on the endangered list, she said. Additional cuts as a remote Congress tries to decrease spending without ruffling important political feathers could put some out of business — at untold human cost.

Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said that in preparing for the budget-cutting onslaught, “We have to look at the entire picture, and that certainly includes the tax side of things. Not only does that reflect the values we believe are important — how are we going to share the costs of being the kind of country we want to be? — but as a practical matter, where is the money coming from? You can’t get to where we need to be on the budget by cutting 1 percent or 10 percent or even 25 percent out of out discretionary domestic spending, because that’s just not a big enough part of the budget.”

Pelavin had a mixed reaction to this week’s tentative compromise between the Obama administration and congressional Republicans that traded continued benefits for millions of unemployed Americans for a two-year extension of Bush-era tax cuts that include the nation’s wealthiest as well as middle-class citizens — a deal Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, said he may filibuster to block.

“Our position is that compromise is a messy, ugly thing,” Pelavin said. “There are a lot of things in it that we have fought for for a long time, other things that will be very difficult to swallow.”

And that includes tax cuts for the wealthy that critics say will do little to stimulate job growth while adding hugely to the deficit — and to the pressure to cut human service programs, factors that have generated fury among many congressional Democrats.

But most of the national Jewish groups argue that with budget and political pressures putting the squeeze on every government program and a far more conservative Congress about to take the reins, they have no choice but to take a narrow approach —emphasizing the protection of small handfuls of key programs, eschewing detailed positions on broad issues such as tax cuts.

The Jewish Federations of North America, the critical intermediary between government funding programs and local agencies around the country that are part of the gederation system, has focused on protecting a handful of key programs, mostly serving elderly Americans — including a large number of Jews.

Priorities include the group’s breakthrough Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities (NORCs) program and the effort to prevent big Medicaid and Medicare cuts that could ripple through the Jewish social service network with devastating effect.

NCJW, which argues that human needs must be met before enacting or extending tax cuts, is focusing on programs serving women and children — always a juicy target for congressional budget cutters looking for ways to slash spending without infuriating powerful constituencies.

“We are facing down a Congress that is eager to cut the deficit, with a deficit commission that has come up with draconian cuts in key safety net programs and programs that seniors, women and children and families depend on,” said Sammie Moshenberg, NCJW’s Washington director. “Given the state of our economy and the persistence of a difficult economic climate, those safety net issues are more critical than ever for families.”


Not surprisingly, Orthodox organizations will take a slightly different tack.

“I anticipate the OU will confer closely with the Jewish federations to support the core programs of the federation system, with a particular focus on how changes will affect families,” said Nathan Diament, public policy director for the Orthodox Union. “And we will be looking in particular at how things like tax credits, changing tax rates for families with children and tax incentives to support families will be handled.”

That, he said, is in keeping with a Republican leadership that wants “to incentivize giving through the tax code, and which wants to support nongovernmental organizations, and faith-based groups in particular, that do a lot of good work. That is something President Obama agrees with, so there may be some opportunity to find common ground.”

“A lot will depend on how the process unfolds,” said Rabbi Abba Cohen, vice president for federal affairs for Agudath Israel of America. “There can’t be too abrupt a shift in spending because that would just transfer the crisis to state and local governments.”

Reductions in spending will place “more of a burden on community nonprofits and faith based organizations,” he said. “But it’s also an opportunity to give the faith-based community a larger role in confronting the problems we face; because nonprofits and religious organization can accomplish their goals in more efficient ways, you can get more from them with less money.”

B’nai B’rith International, which has revived its public profile with a strong focus on health care and senior housing, is focusing on those areas as the budget wars intensify.

The group’s director of aging services, Rachel Goldberg, said B’nai B’rith is keeping a close eye on the various commissions and committees that are working on deficit reduction plans, with the expectation that Congress will ultimately draw elements from several, but that the group’s focus remains on the core issues of Social Security and Medicare.

Annother focus is housing. B’nai B’rith, a major provider of housing for the needy Jewish elderly, “is very watchful about what’s happening with those programs. They are expensive on the front end because you’re talking about building new units — so it’s low-hanging fruit for people looking for programs to cut.”

Senior housing has been cut “many times in the past,” she said, and the group worries that it could be an early target of the next Congress.

B’nai B’rith is also concerned about what Goldberg sees as a potentially catastrophic confluence of cuts in Social Security and increased “cost sharing” in Medicare — “which means shifting more of the cost burden to beneficiaries,” she said. “When you do those two things at the same time, you create a situation where it’s not just the low-income elderly who are affected, but middle-class beneficiaries who could be pushed into poverty if you ask them to share more of the costs and as costs continue to rise.”