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Jewish Journal

With debt deal, Jews’ fight and worries shift to new ‘super committee’

by Ron Kampeas, JTA

August 2, 2011 | 2:27 pm

United States Capitol

United States Capitol

Even before the debt deal was signed Tuesday in Washington, U.S. Jewish groups and recipients of government largesse were asking the same question: Who’s going to get cut?

It’s still too early to say. But the new “super committee” created to hash out the details of $1.2 trillion to $1.5 trillion in spending cuts by the end of the year, and the arguments that surely will arise from the committee’s work, will provide the clearest sign yet of which government grants or programs are on the chopping block.

In the Jewish community, the areas of concern range from funding for elderly care to environmental issues to democracy promotion overseas. Federal funding makes up a significant chunk of the budgets of many of the groups that operate in those fields.

Joyce Garver Keller, the executive director of Ohio Jewish Communities, which lobbies state lawmakers for Ohio’s Jewish federations, said Ohio Jewish service providers already are reeling from cuts mandated last month in the state budget. That included up to 14 percent in cuts for nursing homes and 3 percent cuts for home- and community-based providers.

The largest Jewish facility for the elderly in the state, in the Cleveland area, already is dealing with $2 million in cuts on the state level even without any cuts at the federal level.

Keller said the homes for the elderly were examining solutions including freezing salaries and retirement benefits for staff, and cutting back on utilities such as electricity. Others are considering opening up in-house medical practices to outsiders to create revenue.

“You can maybe make up 1, 2 or if you’re really savvy 3 percent, but we can’t make up 14 percent,” Keller said. “You can’t make up something that large.”

The National Council for Jewish Women expressed concern particularly about cuts that could affect women and children.

“The deal does require deep cuts in government spending, cuts that will likely affect Head Start, K-12 education, Title X family planning, job training, domestic violence prevention, meals on wheels and other services for vulnerable people,” NCJW said in a statement.

Mark Olshan, the associate executive vice president for B’nai B’rith International, which runs 38 homes for the elderly across the country, said federal cuts would burden a system coping with a growing number of retirement-age baby boomers.

“The reality is we’re probably not going to be building a lot more buildings, but there will be more people who need these kinds of programs,” he said.

Jewish groups are also closely watching cuts in areas where they do not receive direct assistance. Jason Isaacson, the director of governmental and international affairs for the American Jewish Committee, anticipated cuts in programs promoting energy alternatives and democracy overseas.

Isaacson said cuts in democracy promotion would be especially unfortunate just as reform was sweeping the Arab world, noting the upcoming elections in Tunisia in October as an example.

“We need to lower the deficit, but we have big opportunities and responsibilities around the world,” Isaacson said.

The key to preserving funding is to intensify lobbying between now and when the new super committee votes in November on proposed cuts, said William Daroff, the Washington director of the Jewish Federations for North America.

“We will be lobbying heavily to ensure that the $550 billion in immediate nondiscretionary domestic cuts do not come from the programs that fund key Jewish federation services to the vulnerable,” Daroff said. “No decisions have been made yet on the Hill as to where those cuts will come from.”

Under the deal struck over the weekend and passed by both houses of Congress—in the House of Representatives on Monday and the Senate the next day—about half the cuts are to come from the defense sector and the other half from domestic programs, with some cuts designated for foreign assistance.

Funding for Israel is one of the few exemptions; it remains at $3 billion a year.

If the committee cannot reach an agreement—or if the Congress rejects its recommendations—it will trigger automatic across-the-board cuts of at least $1.2 trillion.

The first thing to watch for, said Rachel Goldberg, the director of advocacy for B’nai B’rith International, is whom congressional leaders name to the super committee. That will happen over the next two weeks.

“The composition of the committee will give an indication of what the leadership is expecting and the likelihood of getting a deal or using the trigger,” she said.

Goldberg and other observers say their choices will reveal two things: First, whether the leaders are serious about reaching a deal by the end of the year, and then their priorities. If the lawmakers appointed to the committee are chosen from among the stalwarts in each party who opposed a deal to raise the debt ceiling, it would indicate a lack of seriousness, analysts say.

A top Democratic aide on Capitol Hill who deals with budget matters said the party was watching closely to see if Republicans would name those who opposed any tax hikes at all. Republicans are watching to see whether appointments include Democrats who opposed any deal or voted against the plan because it did not involve tax increases to help meet a revenue gap.

In comments after the deal was approved, congressional leaders suggested that they were seeking problem solvers, not ideologues.

“Both parties got us in this mess, both parties are going to have to work together to get us out,” Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the chairman of the House Budget Committee and an architect of the deal, was quoted as saying by Bloomberg News.

The next characteristic to watch for is expertise, Goldberg said. Congress members with a known expertise in an area—health care, housing, foreign assistance and transportation, among others—are likelier to advocate for more nuanced cuts. Special interests without representation on the committee can expect the cuts to be more brutal.

“They need people who know that if cuts will be made how you make that operational,” Goldberg said.

Nervousness persists over whether major entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid—which respectively cover medical assistance for the elderly and poor—will be on the chopping block.

They are mostly spared for now and, according to the agreement, will be spared again, paradoxically, if the committee defaults on its mission and fails to reach an agreement. The programs could face cuts, however, should the committee recommend them.

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