January 5, 2006
Poor, Darfur Lose in Budget, Israel Gains
Jewish agencies around the country could have to ante up tens of millions of dollars in the next five years, thanks to a year-end budget package approved by Congress.
That assessment from a top Jewish activist here could be just the tip of the fiscal iceberg, as activists try to figure out exactly what was in the massive budget bill and how it will be implemented.
Last month, the Senate passed its version of the budget reconciliation bill by the narrowest of margins, with Vice President Dick Cheney casting the deciding vote. The measure aims to trim $40 billion from the gigantic federal budget deficit over five years through cuts in a wide range of programs, but lawmakers scaled back reductions that had generated the strongest opposition, including reductions in the Food Stamps program.
Jewish groups, led by the United Jewish Communities (UJC), were particularly concerned about changes in Medicaid rules intended to slow the growth in the entitlement program.
Despite their efforts, the final bill includes a number of provisions that could cost Jewish agencies dearly. Included among them: changes to regulations governing transfer of assets by potential recipients to both relatives and charitable institutions.
Jewish health agencies would be forced to make up the difference when Medicaid benefits for some recipients are cut because of the tighter rules, said William Daroff, UJC Washington representative. The change could also "disincentivize charitable giving" by the elderly, he said.
UJC also expressed concerns about increased co-payments for Medicaid recipients, something that could have a "profoundly negative impact on millions of destitute Medicaid recipients who would have greater difficulty accessing necessary health services," Daroff wrote in a memo to Jewish agencies.
Congressional analysts say the massive bill -- 770 pages of fine print that even many congressional leaders had not read when it was passed at 6:15 a.m. -- will cut Medicare benefits, as well.
While warning that the full impact of the measure cannot be measured until regulations for implementing it are drawn, "we're worried about the impact it will have on our agencies, as well as on the elderly and indigent population," Daroff said, adding that "it's going to cost a lot."
Because of a legislative technicality, the House must vote again on the measure this month. Some groups, like the AARP, will use that to try to overturn the whole bill. However, Daroff said that congressional rules mandate an up-or-down vote on the entire bill, not selective modification, which will make reversing the cuts an uphill fight.
UJC, he said, will wait to see if there is a groundswell of opposition before deciding on a course of action: "If it's a tilting at windmills exercise with no real possibility of having an impact, we may decide to save our strength and try to correct parts of the bill we see as most egregious after the fact. [We] have a limited amount of political capital."
The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC) was blunter. The group called the budget measure "a heartbreaking end to a year in which so many Americans struggling with poverty have been repeatedly wronged and abandoned by those in whom their trust was placed."
In a statement, the group cited cuts in funds for child-support enforcement and student aid and said the elimination of cuts to Food Stamps after a national uproar was "small consolation."
The RAC and other liberal groups argued that far from reducing the deficit, the overall Republican spending plan -- with tax cuts of more than $90 billion, which Congress will take up in the next few months -- will just add to the red ink, while cutting services for the needy.
Israel Up; Darfur Down
Amid the last-minute budget-cutting frenzy, there was some good news for Israel: Congress approved $600 million for U.S.-Israeli cooperative military ventures as part of a big defense spending bill.
Lawmakers -- perhaps with an eye on the 2006 midterm elections and the pro-Israel political action committees that are deciding which candidates to help when doling out dollars in this year's election cycle -- added more than $150 million to the administration's funding request.
The appropriation included $133 million more for Israel's Arrow anti-missile program, an Israeli military project with extensive U.S. funding. The measure also includes $10 million to study new technologies for short-range missile defense -- a special concern for Israel, surrounded by hostile and increasingly well-equipped neighbors. That includes Iran, which recently acquired 12 long-range cruise missiles, according to Israeli officials.
The appropriation was hailed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which argued that enhanced U.S.-Israel military cooperation contributes to the security of both countries.
At the same time, some Jewish groups are lamenting something Congress left out of the military spending bill: $50 million to support African Union peacekeeping efforts in genocide-ravaged Sudan. Several Jewish groups lobbied for the funding, which the administration initially supported but then spurned.
The money was meant to bolster and expand the 7,000-strong African Union peacekeeping force in the Darfur region, which most analysts say is woefully inadequate in the face of genocide sanctioned by the Khartoum government.
"The lack of serious funding for addressing the crisis in Darfur is a disgrace," said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the RAC. "Both Congress and the administration talk a good game about addressing the crisis, but then, when given a chance to do something concrete, they fail to do so."
The administration may still find money for the program by tapping other appropriations, but the lack of congressional action undercuts U.S. demands for other countries to support Darfur relief, several activists said.