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Jewish Journal

The Right’s Secret Weapon: Red Ink

by James D. Besser

March 6, 2003 | 7:00 pm

Students of political irony are having a banner year. A Republican president who campaigned against "nation building" is on the brink of a war intended to rebuild not just a nation -- Iraq -- but an entire region. And conservatives, long the archenemies of deficit spending, are suddenly embracing budgets awash in red ink.

The latter irony threatens the social safety net vital to millions of Americans, including many Jews, as social conservatives mount the most ambitious attempt yet to dismantle government human services programs.

And big deficits are their secret weapon.

Jewish groups, which increasingly depend on a blend of government and philanthropic money to provide a wide range of social and health services, have a lot to lose if the plan succeeds, but hardly any Jewish voices have been raised to protest the strategy.

"Nobody wants to be seen criticizing policies that the leaders of Congress now favor," said an official with a major Jewish group here. "And they're too busy fighting to protect their own programs to get involved in the big-picture fight to preserve an activist approach to government programs."

The Democrats, who never let deficits get in the way of their big social programs when they were in power, are now the ones raising the alarms. But it remains to be seen if they can stay united enough to mount any serious opposition to the conservatives' schemes.

In the old days, fiscal conservatives insisted that government borrowing just led to inflation, bloated and inefficient programs and economic stagnation. But the social conservatives who have emerged in leadership positions in the past few years are anything but traditional; Barry Goldwater, the father of American conservatism, would have a hard time recognizing them as mishpacha (family).

Many now put their rage against the federal government and their determination to enforce serious cuts in government programs ahead of balanced budgets on their legislative to-do lists.

"Many archconservatives see budget deficits in just this way--as a way to restrain spending," said University of Akron political scientist John Green. "The deficit hawks hate this perspective, but sometimes go along to restrain the growth of outlays."

Today's crisis environment offers the opportunity to do what they've failed to do so many times in the past: dismantle a good part of the government human services infrastructure.

Military and homeland security costs are rising astronomically; the costs of the expected Iraq war have not been figured into current budget proposals, but even the optimists say they will exceed $100 billion, and most estimates are much higher.

But government revenues are down, the result of the continuing economic downturn and, Democrats say, the 2001 tax cuts, which the Bush administration moved last week to accelerate and make permanent. The result: in two years, the nation has gone from a big surplus to record deficits.

But with a few notable exceptions, congressional Republicans seem perfectly happy with the return of red ink. This year's budget, passed when the fiscal year was nearly half over, was as pork-lover's picnic, according to some critics; the 2004 version may combine a bipartisan spending spree with new tax cuts.

It doesn't take a CPA to understand that eventually, there will be a day of reckoning, which may be exactly what some conservatives are aiming for.

In a recent Wall Street Journal Op-Ed piece, economist Milton Friedman said, "Deficits will be an effective -- I would go so far as to say, the only effective -- restraint on the spending propensities of the executive branch and the legislature."

In other words, the return of big deficits, coupled to new tax cuts that may make them worse, will make it easier for Congress to do what they have previously regarded as politically impossible: cut programs not just in little increments but in great, bold strokes, including entitlement programs previously held sacrosanct.

The stakes are enormous for Jewish groups that provide a wide range of health and social services using a blend of public and private money. Already, many agencies face dropping state and federal funding; in many communities, philanthropic campaigns have been sagging, adding to the financial squeeze even as demand for services rises.

The stakes may be big, but Jewish voices have been muted. Only the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism has publicly opposed big tax cuts and expressed concerns about the impact of soaring deficits on critical programs.

Most other groups are frightened of angering those congressional leaders who will be making vital spending decisions about their programs. In an environment of impending crisis, most are too busy defending their own funding to risk involvement in the overall battle over the budget process.

The result: Jewish groups that have a lot to lose have been mostly silent as Congress makes budget decisions that could be a backdoor path to the most dramatic change in American government in generations.

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