Budget stuff: Reform ambivalent about Obama deficit speech, JCPA defends domestic programs, President defends foreign aid
04/15/2011 - 14:48
James Besser

I was wondering how Jewish progressives would respond to President Obama's big speech on deficit reduction on Wednesday – a speech that many critics called long on rhetoric, short on specifics.

Now we know; the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the beacon of progressive Jewish activism in Washington, wasn't too impressed.

In a statement, Rabbi David Saperstein, the RAC director, praised the President for rejecting “in no uncertain terms the most problematic parts” of a much tougher budget proposal by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), chair of the House Budget Committee, that would drastically alter Medicare and Medicaid.

“President Obama's solutions differ from Ryan's in their commitment to fairness and their willingness to raise additional revenue to climb out of the deficit crisis, while asserting the need for shared sacrifice in restoring fiscal order,” Saperstein said.

But then the “but” clause: “We must note, however, that while the President's rhetoric depicts a vision of America steeped in the twin goals of economic justice and fiscal soundness, his policy prescriptions would not adequately bring that vision to fruition. Eschewing, rightly, the House leadership's preference to seek savings by shifting costs and risk to individuals, he offered insufficient alternatives.”

In particular, the RAC is unhappy that Obama did not call for an immediate repeal of tax cuts for Americans earning more than $200,000.

And Obama called for cuts to non-defense discretionary spending that “total nearly twice the cuts as those he proposes for the defense budget, even though defense accounts for 20 percent of the budget,” Saperstein said. “A plan skewed so heavily in favor of non-defense discretionary spending cuts over revenue increases and defense cuts raises serious concerns over whether the plan is equal to the task of arresting record growth in poverty and inequality—the hallmarks of this recession.”

With Obama essentially moving the goal posts in the budget debate by accepting many GOP-pushed cuts and proposing huge ones of his own, the RAC will have its work cut out for it in the coming months.

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), which is continuing its big anti-poverty drive, took a slightly different approach – avoiding hot button issues like taxes but focusing on defending specific programs.

In a letter to Congress this week, the group said that “While there are certainly human services programs that may no longer be needed in 2011, some that are under consideration for cuts are very important to safeguard the most vulnerable in our communities. For this reason, we believe it is crucial that you support sufficient discretionary spending to fund human needs programs such as the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), the Community Services Block Grant program, the Social Services Block Grant, and Sections 202, 811, and 8 housing. These programs help states, localities, and nonprofits better serve those in need.”

The group also urged Congress to approve “sufficient federal funding to help repair our nation’s public education system, strengthen child care programs, reinforce anti-hunger and nutrition programs, provide access to employment and training programs, support access to higher education through Pell Grants and address the long-term challenges of caring for older Americans.”

On Thursday JCPA convened its third National Hunger Seder on Capitol Hill, led by Rabbi Steve Gutow, the JCPA president. It was one of more than 40 such events nationwide to foster coalitions around the issue of combating poverty.

Hunger is “an unacceptable condition in every community, one which demands an urgent response,” Gutow said.

Attending were several members of Congress and administration officials.

One more point about the President's deficit speech at George Washington University this week: almost unnoticed by the pundits (this one included) was Obama's defense of foreign aid, a topic most lawmakers would rather not talk about these days.

"Because all this spending is popular with both Republicans and Democrats alike, and because nobody wants to pay higher taxes, politicians are often eager to feed the impression that solving the problem is just a matter of eliminating waste and abuse –that tackling the deficit issue won’t require tough choices,” he said. “Or they suggest that we can somehow close our entire deficit by eliminating things like foreign aid, even though foreign aid makes up about percent of our entire budget."

That will make pro-Israel groups happy.

Nobody expects big cuts in Israel's aid, but Jewish groups dread the prospect of huge cuts to the rest of the foreign aid program, which would make Israels share – the biggest, by far – stand out even more than it already does.

Sounds like the President is going to make defense of the aid program a priority.

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