The new Democratic majority in Congress, backed by some conservative Republicans, is considering reforms that would curtail lawmakers' ability to anonymously insert funding for local projects into spending bills.
The aim is to stop the proliferation of non-essential programs and pet projects, but the earmark reforms also could inhibit funding favored by Jewish nonprofit organizations, including programs that benefit seniors, the disabled and the poor.
The decision by Democrats to remove all earmarks from the 2007 budget is already having an effect. Gone from the appropriations bill that covers the departments of Labor, Education and Health and Human Services is more than $9 million in earmarks for Jewish groups and programs, according to an analysis of reports that accompanied the draft bills.
"There are real people in the Jewish community that will not receive critical services due to the lack of earmarks this year," said William Daroff, United Jewish Communities' (UJC) vice president for public policy.
Democrats blame Republicans in the last Congress for the earmarks' removal, saying that after the midterm elections ended their 12 years in the majority, Republicans all but abandoned the lame-duck session and left behind a vindictive mess by failing to pass nine of 11 appropriations bills.
"The Republicans have taken their ball and gone home and are pouting," Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the new majority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, said last month.
Debate on the 2008 budget starts next week, which Democrats say leaves them little choice but to abandon much of the process that would otherwise attend the 2007 budget, including earmarks and new spending. Instead, the 2007 budget is now likely to be funded by "continuing resolutions" that hew to the broad outlines of the 2006 budget.
Some social services would be affected, Hoyer acknowledged, but "we want to make that suffering as short-term as we can."
The earmarks affecting Jewish groups were mostly for less than $500,000 each and served a variety of programs, from equipment upgrades to Jewish hospitals to Jewish community service programs for the mentally ill and educational programs.
Earmarks are preferred by local Jewish groups, which maintain strong constituent relations with lawmakers. The earmarks allow federations to garner millions of dollars for social service programs without having to compete for grants from federal agencies.
They have been used to support Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities, or NORCs, fostering programming in areas with large numbers of retirees, allowing them to live semi-independently and close to family.
Local NORC programs so far have received $25 million from the federal government, all through earmarks, UJC officials said. About $7 million in NORC funding was stripped from the 2007 spending bills.
In 2004, the omnibus spending bill included 37 earmarks for programs with "Jewish" in the name, amounting to more than $9 million.
Including the terms "Hebrew" and "Sephardic," the number climbed to 41 earmarks and more than $10 million.
Many other projects of importance to local Jewish communities may not have identifiably Jewish names and could be buried in the vast spending documents.
Despite such salutary effects, earmarks are more notorious as pork, or federal funds funneled to lawmakers' campaign contributors and for local initiatives. A slate of recent scandals has led to the reform proposals.
Those have drawn mixed reviews from the Jewish community. Jewish groups long have sought political oversight and reform, but at the same time have benefited greatly from spending measures inserted by lawmakers.
"We wholeheartedly endorse measures that are intended to increase the transparency of the spending process," Daroff said. "We think deals that are cut in the middle of the night is not good government, so we encourage reforms."
But cutting all earmarks would not be wise, Daroff said. The earmarks Jewish groups receive are not designed to help big companies but are for essential community programs.
Hoyer said worthy earmarks would stay in place.
"I am a proponent of not eliminating earmarks," he said, noting that the president has considerable spending discretion and giving up earmarks would "badly skew the balance" between the two branches.
"Congress ought not to give up that authority," Hoyer said. "Some earmarks are good, some bad, but we're going to make sure the public knows about them. Is this a good investment of American taxpayer dollars?"
UJC and the federations back such transparency, supporting reforms that would require lawmakers to attach their names to each spending provision rather than inserting it anonymously.
"The House passed earmark reform earlier this month as part of its rules package.
The Senate is now considering measures that include attaching naming to spending provisions, as well as allowing senators to strike earmarks from spending bills and prevent earmarks from being added to the final drafts of legislation that emerge from House-Senate conferences.
Jewish leaders acknowledge that as earmarks fall out of vogue, they will need to garner funding through federal agencies. UJC was able to secure language in the Older Americans Act to authorize a national NORC program, which will distribute funding for the senior-citizen initiatives across the country through the Department of Health and Human Services. UJC will seek funding for the program in the next budget.
Most of the federal funding Jewish groups receive comes from agencies, largely through the Medicare and Medicaid programs. But Daroff worried that removing earmarks would hurt the ability to fund pilot programs such as NORCs and other innovative solutions to social-service issues.
"The Jewish federation system will adapt to the changing environment and will do what it needs to do to bring necessary services to the community," he said. "Our initiatives are innovative public policy approaches that are welcomed by members of Congress because they see it as not funding the same old program the same old way."
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