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Jewish Journal

When It’s Federal Aid, Pork Isn’t Treif

Jewish officials bristle when they hear the projects described as "pork," a term used to describe pet projects in a lawmaker's congressional district.

by Matthew E. Berger

January 15, 2004 | 7:00 pm

Joyce Keller, right, executive director of JARC: A Jewish Association for Residential Care in suburban Detroit, with Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R-MI) at the dedication of a new JARC home.

Joyce Keller, right, executive director of JARC: A Jewish Association for Residential Care in suburban Detroit, with Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R-MI) at the dedication of a new JARC home.

When it comes to politics, even the Jews want pork. American Jewish communities and some national organizations have become well versed in getting their share of millions of dollars available for social service programs, medical research or other community essentials.

A search of the 2004 omnibus spending bill under consideration in Congress this month found 37 earmarks with the word "Jewish" in the name, amounting to $9,973,000 in appropriations. If you include the terms "Hebrew" and "Sephardic," it climbs to 41 appropriation earmarks and $10,723,000. Many other projects of importance to local Jewish communities may not have identifiable names and could be buried in the vast spending document.

Getting funding for a project takes massive time, energy and, often, money. Many Jewish communities send representatives to Washington to make the pitch directly to their lawmakers, as well as members of congressional appropriations committees. Some hire Washington lobbyists to make the necessary introductions for them.

Next week will be an important one for the budget process. In its first session of the year, the Senate will vote on the omnibus spending package for 2004, because it did not pass all 13 spending bills before the end of last year's session.

The omnibus bill lumps all appropriations that were not approved by Congress into one piece of legislation, and contains $328.1 billion in discretionary spending. It passed the House Dec. 8 by a vote of 242-176.

President Bush's State of the Union address on Jan. 20 will launch the budget process for 2005. The president will lay out his fiscal priorities in the speech, before officially submitting his budget proposal early next month.

Garnering money for one's local Jewish community depends in large part on the influence of local congressmen. Five of the Jewish appropriations next year are in Pennsylvania, amounting to $950,000, in part because Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) is chairman of the Labor, Health and Human Services and Education Subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee.

Jewish officials bristle when they hear the projects described as "pork," a term used to describe pet projects in a lawmaker's congressional district.

"One man's pork is another's essential program," said Reva Price, the Washington representative for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

For example, the Jewish Association for Residential Care (JARC) in suburban Detroit received $500,000 in 2003 for its facility for people with developmental disabilities. It is likely to receive an additional $150,000 this year.

Joyce Keller, JARC's executive director, said her program provides an essential service and shouldn't be lumped in with more frivolous appropriations. She cited one notorious example of Washington pork, a study on the sex lives of fireflies.

"These are the needs of people that are not being met by whatever states have to offer," she said of her patients.

Keller's organization began pursuing a federal appropriation because Michigan's state mental health funds were not properly funding its patients, many of whom are mentally disabled. It hired a Washington lobbyist, met with Michigan congressmen and both senators and hoped for the best.

"We had no idea, and we were very ecstatic that we were successful," Keller said. "We knew it was a gamble."

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) last month touted six Jewish community projects that were funded in the appropriations process. Among them were allocations to the Sephardic Community Center in Brooklyn and two allocations for the Sephardic Bikur Holim Center in Brooklyn.

Brett Heimov, Nadler's Washington chief of staff, said the office receives 15 to 20 requests from the Jewish community each year and forwards them to the appropriators.

"In 11 years here, I've seen maybe a dozen projects that are just stupid," he said. "Most are worthwhile."

Heimov said appropriators, who have the final say on what projects receive money, prefer programs that already are advanced in their development, giving a better sense of how the money will be spent.

A lawmaker touting a project may go it alone or may seek additional support when he sends a letter to members of the appropriations committee. Eight lawmakers signed a letter in October to the chairman of an appropriations subcommittee seeking $543,375 for the Center for Jewish History in New York's archival preservation project. The center was allocated $328,000.

While some Jewish organizations seek money individually, others group their requests. The United Jewish Communities (UJC) helped win $4,320,000 for 19 Jewish communities for naturally occurring retirement communities, or NORCs, which seek to assist elderly living independently in areas with large aging populations.

Robert Goldberg, UJC's assistant legislative director, said the organization is able to serve as a conduit between the local communities and lawmakers who know the value of NORCs.

"We are the ones that have done the legwork with the appropriations committees and educated them on NORCs as a community-based service," he said.

Jewish communities in big cities often need less assistance, because they have more resources and are more familiar with the process.

The need for federal appropriations is growing in the Jewish community. Budget crunches in many states, as well as decreases in social service block grants that give federal money to the states to distribute, have led to a decrease in the availability of other public funding sources, Price said.

It is hard to pin down some of the ingredients for a successful bid for funds. Communities with Republican lawmakers may be served better, because the Republican leaders of the divided Congress have been reticent to provide funds for Democratic districts, Jewish officials said.

Some suggest that having a Jewish lawmaker in one's district helps. Others say that Jewish lawmakers, concerned about a backlash, try not to have too many Jewish projects funded in their districts.

One Democratic aide said he believed Republicans may be working to give more assistance to Jewish communities as part of their efforts to court the Jewish vote in 2004.

Price said Jews do no better or worse than other interests lobbying for pork.

"Not everything asked for is gotten," she observed.

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