Promoting new priorities
WASHINGTON — Faced with a new Congress intent on slashing the U.S. federal budget, Jewish groups are trimming their agendas to hew to its contours.
On issues from Israel aid to the environment to elderly care, Jewish organizations are planning to promote priorities that would find favorable reception in the new Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives. The groups are trying to build alliances based on shared interests and recasting pitches for existing programs as Republican-friendly.
“Some parts of our agenda won’t have much traction in this new climate,” acknowledged Josh Protas, the Washington director for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “We are looking for items that have bipartisan priorities.”
To be sure, Democrats still control the White House and the Senate, and many conservative initiatives will die in the Senate or by the stroke of a presidential veto. But the House, with its considerable oversight powers and its ability to stymie legislation, remains extremely important.
Protas says the JCPA, an umbrella body for Jewish public policy groups, already has had meetings with staff members of the new House speaker, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio).
On domestic issues, many of the major Jewish organizations are devoted to policies that directly contradict Republican approaches. According to Protas, Boehner’s staffers told JCPA representatives that the best strategy for working around that is to cherry-pick the smaller issues within the broader agendas that could appeal to Republicans.
“We definitely got the sense that smaller, more focused legislation is what we’ll be seeing, so we’re trying to look at more discrete cases,” he said.
For example, on elderly care, a signature issue of the Jewish Federations of North America. The JFNA will seek to frame Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities, or NORCs, one of the jewels of the federation system, as a cost savings, according to William Daroff, director of the Jewish Federations’ Washington office.
NORCs have been pitched previously as appealing earmarks for lawmakers to insert into bills. But Republicans say they will eliminate earmarks, or discretionary spending by lawmakers; the Jewish Federations’ emphasis on cost-effectiveness is an attempt to hit a popular Republican note.
“Programs like NORC,” Daroff said, “shift governmental policy away from expensive institutionalized care to less expensive” programs.
Daroff invoked Republican talking points in explaining how the Jewish Federations would continue to seek funding for security for Jewish community institutions. Security funding, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars in recent years, has given local law enforcement the power to decide exactly how the money is spent, not federal officials.
“It’s not a nameless, faceless bureaucrat in downtown Washington making a decision but someone in a community allocating funds to what a community feels its needs are,” he said.
Another strategy is to establish relationships with Republican Congress members based on mutual concerns, and then trying to make the lawmakers aware of what drives Jewish community concerns, said Mark Pelavin, the associate director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center.
He cited international religious liberty issues, including the persecution of Christians around the world.
“You have to go member by member to find people’s interests,” he said.
Jewish organizations will continue to promote some issues even if the Republican-controlled Congress isn’t interested in them. Protas and Pelavin cited cuts in funding for the supplemental nutrition assistance program, or food stamps, as an area where their groups would push back against GOP cuts. Daroff mentioned plans by some fiscal conservatives to disburse funding for Medicaid and poverty assistance in bloc grants to states, which would dilute spending on programs for the disabled.
Israel funding is likely to remain steady, Capitol Hill sources said, although there are concerns about how the funding will take place given the Republicans’ interest in trimming foreign spending.
Some leading Republicans, including Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the new chairwoman of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, say Congress could separate funding for Israel from overall foreign spending, allowing conservatives to maintain current levels for Israel while slashing foreign spending for countries they don’t see as friendly or programs they oppose.
The pro-Israel community sees such a proposal as disastrous, in part because it will make Israel a “special case” after years of efforts to make backing Israel a natural extension of foreign policy. That could engender resentment of Israel.
Correspondingly, the pro-Israel lobby sees foreign aid as a means to bolster support for the U.S.-Israel alliance in the international community. Pro-Israel groups in Washington often have taken the lead in lobbying for Israel-friendly countries in the past.
One proposal has been to make Israel funding a part of defense spending. Insiders say they have been reassured that Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), the chairwoman of the foreign operations subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee, has no intention of giving up funding for Israel and the power it yields her.
It also remains unclear what Republicans mean when they say they plan on keeping funding for Israel steady. Israel and the United States are in the middle of a 10-year agreement that incrementally increases assistance year by year between 2007 and 2017, so that it averages $3 billion a year.
Does “keeping funding steady” mean maintaining the 2010 level of $2.775 billion, or keeping to the agreement and upping the amount to $3 billion this year?
Officials say the best asset available to Jewish organizations dealing with domestic and foreign policy is the grass roots — not the lobbyists in Washington, but the activists across the country who make appointments to see their lawmakers on home visits.
The lesson of the Tea Party, the grass-roots movement that propelled Republicans to retake the House, should not be lost on Jewish groups, says Sammie Moshenberg, the Washington director for the National Council of Jewish Women, which will advocate this year for President Obama’s judicial nominees, pay equity and immigration reform, among other issues.
“The inside-the-Beltway strategy is to find our friends where we can, on a bipartisan basis,” she said. “But also to get the grass roots to speak out — that’s key, that’s what always turns the tide. If the Tea Party taught us nothing, it’s that getting folks to speak out and be persistently involved makes a difference.”