Jewish Journal

Jewish Silence on Tax Plan Deafening

"We don't take positions on tax cuts."

by James D. Besser

Posted on Jan. 16, 2003 at 7:00 pm

Washington is buzzing about the Bush administration's huge new tax cut proposal, but the silence from Jewish groups is deafening -- and revealing.

Many activists believe big, new cuts that don't immediately stimulate the faltering economy will have a devastating impact on government funding for health and human services, including money for thousands of Jewish social service agencies.

But you'd never know it by their uncharacteristic silence as Congress takes up the Bush administration tax cuts. The reasons for that reticence are similar to the reasons why so many Democrats will swallow their misgivings and vote for cuts they believe will hurt the country's neediest citizens.

Ironically, the strongest opposition to the idea of big tax cuts may be coming from conservative Republicans, who abhor deficits almost as much as they hate big government.

The Democrats aren't exactly profiles in courage as the tax debate opens. Last week, a Democratic congressman put it bluntly, saying his party is "schizophrenic" on the issue of taxes. "We just can't find the language for telling the people that big tax cuts right now are not a good idea."

The congressman was being generous. Mostly, Democratic lawmakers live in mortal fear of the "tax-and-spend" label that Republicans have learned to wield with remarkable effectiveness.

Many Democrats believe that the administration's 10-year, $674 billion tax cut, which includes the elimination of taxes on dividends, will just heap new red ink onto the deficit, not stimulate the economy. They worry that the new cuts come at the worst possible time, with a looming war in Iraq, soaring homeland security costs, an ongoing economic slowdown and the still-mounting impact of the 2001 tax cuts, which the Bush administration now wants to accelerate as part of its stimulus package.

Big tax cuts will make it harder to respond to new challenges, they fret. And they fear that if the tax cuts don't produce a jump start for the economy, a wildly out-of-balance budget will quickly force wholesale cuts in health and human service programs, the vulnerable underbelly of the federal budget.

However, few Democrats are willing to make these arguments in public. Instead, they are debating details: who gets the biggest pieces of the pie, the differences between eliminating taxes on dividends and giving income-tax rebates.

Scared of being called pro-tax, the Democrats have already come up with their own sizeable tax cut proposal that they say will favor working Americans. There are significant differences between the Republican and Democratic plans, and they should be debated. But what should also be debated is the wisdom of any tax cut at all. Instead, all the nation is getting is Republican tax policy -- and Republican lite.

The silence is even more profound in the Jewish community.

Like many Democrats, numerous Jewish organizational professionals are deeply worried about the cumulative human impact of the Bush-era tax cuts on an already frayed social safety net. Jewish agencies that depend on federal grants to provide services could face big cuts at a time when philanthropy is down and demand for services up. At the same time, more than 30 states may have to cut social service spending because of their own budget crises, a major misery multiplier.

In addition, many Jewish leaders fear that a second round of tax cuts will be driven by an anti-government ideological agenda, not economics; new tax cuts may be calculated to create exactly the kind of budgetary pressure that will make new program reductions inevitable.

Only the Reform movement is publicly opposing new tax cuts; only a few Jewish groups have even challenged the details of the Bush proposal.

"We don't take positions on tax cuts," said representatives of almost a half-dozen Jewish groups this week -- organizations that usually take positions on everything from auto fuel efficiency to cloning.

The reasons for that shyness are varied. Some Jewish leaders fear losing precious political access with the administration and the Republican Congress; some are reluctant to go against the top domestic priority of a president who has stood by Israel during a terrible year.

An even bigger factor may be internal politics. Jewish groups may be restrained from participating in the tax debate by big donors who stand to benefit greatly from the administration plan.

Whatever the reason, Jewish groups that traditionally fight for social justice and compassionate government programs are opting out of a debate that will have a huge impact on the government's ability to provide those things for years to come.

Jewish groups may chip around the edges by focusing on the relative fairness of various tax plans, but there will be almost no public discussion of the real questions of the day: is this a good time for any sizable tax cut or will the stimulus package just produce new debt and new pressure to cut vulnerable programs?

The answers are not simple, but they will not be arrived at through a conspiracy of silence.  

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