With the arrival of the 109th Congress in Washington, the capital will not only get a new crop of freshman pols, but a new round of battles over federal budget and tax policies.
While members of both parties will portray this process as a gallant fight for fiscal prudence or the rights of the dispossessed, the truth is a little less romantic.
The long and involved passage of the federal budget is designed to enhance the power of our political class. It is a more or less an openly conducted scam, by which the members of the House and the Senate battle to divide the pie in ways that favor their constituents and themselves.
Having taxed us as much as they can get away with, both major political parties then dole out bits and pieces of the available revenue to a citizenry that must sit up and beg for some of their own money, and then take credit for the crumbs thrown our way.
The question that interests me is whether or not the representatives of national Jewish organizations who want more federal dollars for programs which benefit Jewish agencies that deal with the poor, the elderly and others in need should be among those leaving scorched earth behind them in the latest edition of this nasty partisan process.
A STAKE IN THE BUDGET
Jewish social-welfare agencies, like their secular and religious counterparts of other faiths, are deeply dependent on federal tax dollars. Any cuts in government outlays to these causes has a tremendous impact on local Jewish philanthropic work around the country.
But there's more to the budget debate than just the scramble for dollars. There's the question of how many dollars are to be divided. And that's where the question of tax cuts comes in.
Because if, due to a decision on the part of Congress, less of the citizenry's income is to be requisitioned by the government, then that may mean less crumbs for the obliging representatives and senators to dole out to their grateful constituents.
So does that mean that Jewish and other religious groups that support charities that are, at least in part, subsidized by the government, have an obligation to oppose tax cuts?
According to some, the answer is yes.
The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism has consistently taken that position. So have liberal Jewish commentators such as Leonard Fein and Douglas Bloomfield. They not only assert that tax cuts are bad for Jewish agencies,they say they violate Jewish values.
Mark Pelavin of the RAC wrote last year that admonitions in the Torah to "open our hands to the poor and the needy among us" constitutes a "mandate which compels us to oppose" the 2004 Republican budget proposals, and "to support only a budget that enables the government to invest in critical programs that benefit Americans of all income levels."
They'll likely take the same stand on proposals to make previous Bush-sponsored tax cuts permanent.
Should the rest of the Jewish community follow their lead?
The answer here is no, and for a number of reasons.
First, it is just plain foolish for any religious group to intervene in what is a highly partisan process.
The majority of Jews may vote for Democrats, but that does not mean that it is smart for Jewish organizations to burn their bridges to the party that controls both houses of Congress and the White House, especially at a time when life-and-death issues such as support for Israel and the rise in worldwide anti-Semitism are on the table.
WHAT IS A JEWISH ISSUE?
You can, if you want, define virtually anything as a "Jewish issue." But are we really sure that supporting more government spending in general, is, as a matter of principle, a Jewish interest?
More importantly, if there is anything we can learn from the history of the last few decades, it is that enabling the government to tax us more and spending it promiscuously is neither the path to justice or a better life for the poor.
As columnist Mona Charen writes in her new book Do-Gooders: How Liberals Hurt Those They Claim to Help (And the Rest of Us), a policy of defining compassion as a function of federal dollars spent was a colossal failure. (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.)
"During the twenty-five years that followed Lyndon Johnson's declaration of war on poverty, U.S. taxpayers spent $3 trillion providing every conceivable support for the poor, the elderly and the infirm. Private foundations spent scores of billions more, and private and religious charities even more. Nevertheless as Ronald Reagan later quipped, 'In the war on poverty, poverty won.'"
As Charen rightly notes, government programs often perpetuate problems rather than solve them. The bitter truth for the "compassion lobby" was that the landmark Welfare Reform Act passed in 1996, which they predicted would result in catastrophe for the poor, did nothing of the kind. While far from perfect (it was, in my opinion, notably flawed by anti-immigrant measures included in the bill), welfare-to-work measures have been largely successful.
Viewed in that light, opposition to that reform as well as the whole notion of subjecting social welfare spending to greater scrutiny and accountability was not a biblically mandated obligation. It was just pure party politics and liberal ideology. The same is true of the 2005 budget and tax war.
It is one thing for some of us to act as if Judaism consists of the Democratic Party platform, with holidays thrown in. It is quite another for us to be told that a different point of view about a budget or the rate of taxation violates the Torah. And it is folly for Jewish leaders to send that message to the rest of the country.
That's not to say that the Jewish community shouldn't urge legislators to support funding for worthy, local social-welfare projects. They should. And we, along with the rest of the citizenry of this great nation, are as entitled as anybody else to sit up, beg with the rest of them, and then gobble up the morsels our beneficent legislators toss us.
But fighting the Republican budget or tax cuts is the Democratic Party agenda, not that of the Jewish community. Anyone who confuses those two things is doing the Jews, and the country, no favor.