View from America: Be careful what you wish for

Congressional spending reform is all well and good when it's about cutting someone else's purse strings.

tobin 88 (photo credit: )
tobin 88
(photo credit: )
For most US Jewish groups and their supporters, the results of last November's congressional elections was a dream come true. With the Democrats ending the Republicans' 12-year-reign on Capitol Hill, there was no question that most of mainstream liberal Jewish organizations were going to be lining up behind the new agenda. The "100 hours" plan put forward by new House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) included a number of issues that most Jewish advocacy groups were thrilled to see passed. Items such as raising the minimum wage and federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research were backed by a broad range of organizations, such as the American Jewish Committee, the Union for Reform Judaism and many others. But now that the initial partisan euphoria over this sea change in national politics is passing, Jewish groups must confront some difficult issues that won't be so easily resolved. Indeed, having a party that shares more of their ideas about the domestic agenda may well complicate their lives as much as it simplifies things. Ironically, the most difficult aspect of the new Washington agenda for Jewish agencies is a result of the legacy of the ousted Republican majority: earmark reform. Earmarks are spending amendments attached to legislation though which lawmakers were able to funnel millions of dollars in taxpayer money, often without putting their names to the bill and thereby taking responsibility for the looting of the national treasury. The GOP didn't invent the tactic, but they did appear to perfect it, spending more than double the amount of money in this same way since 1994 as the Democrats had done before them. The promiscuous use of earmarks by the Republicans was not only a scandal in terms of the enormous amounts of money expended on them, but because they were often directly tied to the campaign contributions and/or other benefits accruing to the legislators who provided this service. Associated in the minds of voters with the "K Street Project" (the strategy by which Republicans successfully competed with the traditional ascendancy of Democratic lobbyists) and the naked greed of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, earmarks have become a symbol of all that is wrong with the way Congress does business. And since the lame-duck Republicans failed to pass appropriations bills for 2007, the triumphant Democrats are now left with a budget process that will force them to forgo earmarks altogether until the next budget. By that time, reforms that the Democrats say they are eager to enact may make the gravy train run a bit slower. The most likely reform will be to prevent members of Congress from attaching earmarks anonymously. That will add transparency and accountability to the process. But if this potential outbreak of honesty isn't being greeted with acclamation by many of those who speak out for the Jewish community, there's a reason. The plain truth is that a lot of the money that funds Jewish social-service organizations around the nation was coming directly from those unpopular earmarks. Indeed, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports that the Democrats decision to remove all earmarks from the 2007 budget will cost Jewish groups and programs more than $9 million for starters. Services such as aid for elderly housing provided by Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities got more than $25 million in federal funds via earmarks. And that's just one of many admittedly worthy causes that benefited from federal largesse via members of Congress eager to please Jewish voters and donors. As this money dries up, agencies that have depended on the system are going to have to find new ways of coming up with the cash the programs need. DEFENDERS OF the practice can say that unlike the seedier Abramoff-type federal back-scratching, these allocations are praiseworthy in purpose and merely a form of constituent service. Compared to the corporate welfare that has often been doled out to big companies, investors, and casino-owning Indian tribes by both Republicans and Democrats, such earmarks are small change indeed. But those who cry scandal when money is bled from federal coffers for what they believe to be bad causes cannot pretend to be uninvolved when the same process also benefits some needy senior citizens. Reform is all well and good when it's about cutting someone else's purse strings, but a very different kettle of fish when it is your own. After all, virtually every earmark, from the small-scale expenditures for NORCs or to help Jewish Community Centers, to the large-scale graft involved in the $200 million allocated to build the celebrated "Bridge to Nowhere" in Ketchikan, Alaska, was a benefit for a few paid for by the many. Pork is pork, no matter whether you slice it thin or thick, and is ethically treif regardless of how pure you might claim your motives to be. The last decade was an ongoing festival of conservative hypocrisy as enemies of "big government" not only increased its size, but sucked every possible penny out of the budget for their friends. Power has a way of sending even the keenest ethical compass haywire. Even with earmark and lobbying reform, the chances of the Democrats altogether breaking this cycle are slim. But if the change is real, it may well be Jewish agencies that have allowed themselves to grow dependent on earmarked funds that will suffer. The irony doesn't stop there. The same groups that will be bewailing the end of earmarks are also the ones urging an end to tax cuts, particularly any breaks which went the way of everyone's favorite villain: the oil companies. It was unsurprising that among the "100 hours" legislation passed by the Democrats was a bill that raising royalties on federal oil and gas leases, and repealing some of the tax breaks the Bush administration and Republican Congress gave the industry in 2004. But the same groups that cheered this are also crying out for making energy independence a national priority. How do Jewish groups who rightly want to begin the process of cutting back our dependence on foreign (and largely Arab) oil think this will happen if oil companies are discouraged from taking the huge financial risk that is part of oil exploration? And don't they realize that it is the poor and the middle class whom they claim to champion against the interests of the rich that will be hurt most by higher taxes on gas that may be part of a serious energy independence program or as part of an anti-global warming campaign that they also support? The point is, politics involves choices. Like those who backed the defeated Republicans, Democrats and their cheering section must now reckon with the unsatisfying ethical contradictions that inevitably come with the reins of power. The writer is executive editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia.