‘One of the Most Dismal Sessions Ever’

Asked to discuss the accomplishments of the 105th Congress, which erupted last week in a frenzy of last-minute wheeling and dealing as lawmakers tried to avert another politically costly government shutdown, Rep. Ben Cardin’s response was succinct.

“It will be a very brief conversation,” said the Maryland Democrat, a senior member of the Jewish delegation in the House.

Cardin’s bleak assessment is shared by Jewish activists, who were thwarted on issues ranging from Social Security and Medicare reform to workplace protections for Sabbath-observing Jews.

Congress passed significant legislation, including a measure intended to fight religious persecution abroad, and it presided over the first balanced budget in decades.

But the session was dominated by well-financed special-interest groups and an unprecedented level of partisan rancor, according to several Jewish legislators.

And for months, lawmakers have been fiddling a song of impeachment while world economies burn and critical problems such as weapons proliferation pile up. The relentless focus on President Clinton’s sex life had a direct and negative impact on a number of priority issues for the Jewish community, including a major religious liberty bill.

Jewish activists put much of the blame on what many see as a Republican leadership increasingly dominated by the party’s right wing. But the Democrats weren’t exactly blameless.

“The Republicans were excessively partisan, and the Democrats were disorganized and ineffective,” said a staffer for a Democratic legislator. “There was little cooperation between the White House and the Democratic leadership. Combine that with the fact that President Clinton was weakened by the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and it adds up to one of the most dismal sessions ever.”

For Jewish groups active on the domestic front, the 105th Congress could have been worse — but not much. Rep. Cardin ticked off some of the failings:

“On the big-ticket items like the budget, we took a Band-Aid approach,” he said. “The way the appropriations bills were handled was a disaster. Major education initiatives went nowhere; there were no accomplishments on tax reform or health care reform, which were hyped as ‘must-pass’ items. It’s the second Congress in a row that’s failed to act on important environmental issues.”

More worrisome, he said, was the failure of legislators to start dealing with the long-term problems facing the Social Security system.

“The session will be known primarily for its investigations, none of which has resulted in any changes in policy,” Cardin said. “It’s been a wasted opportunity and a tragedy for the country.”

Many Jewish activists agreed.

Sammy Moshenberg, Washington director for the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), said that “a number of very promising legislative initiatives were just dropped, including additional funding for child care, the Violence Against Women Act, the Hate Crimes Prevention Act and the Patient’s Bill of Rights.”

The tobacco settlement bill — which the administration hoped would help finance a number of social and education initiatives — and major campaign finance legislation fell victim to big-money lobbying from opponents, she said.

The biggest cause of legislative gridlock, she said, was “excessive partisan bickering.”

“There’s a lot more politics being played on the international scene,” said Rep. Cardin. “We put off dealing with the IMF [International Monetary Fund]; it’s embarrassing how we’ve treated the U.N. There’s clearly a neo-isolationist trend in Congress that’s weakening the United States internationally.”

Orthodox activists who generally track a more conservative course on Capitol Hill found more to like about the 105th Congress, but they, too, expressed frustration about issues left undone — including school vouchers. Congress failed to override a presidential veto on a voucher plan for the District of Columbia. Orthodox groups favored the plan, while liberal and church-state organizations were vehemently opposed.

“We had some important victories, including the expansion of ‘charitable choice,'” said Abba Cohen, Washington director for Agudath Israel of America. “But they were overshadowed by the fact that we were unable to make progress on our top priorities — the Religious Liberty Protection Act [RLPA] and the Workplace Religious Freedom Act [WFRA] That made this session very disappointing.”

Cohen, too, criticized the partisan excesses of the 105th.

“There was a great deal of posturing for the election,” he said. “Issues that came up were being evaluated almost entirely in terms of their election value. That always happens, but this year it happened much earlier. And that makes it much harder to get business done.”

OU Voters Guide

With congressional elections just three weeks away, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America is issuing its first-ever guide for voters around the country.

But unlike guides distributed by groups such as the Christian Coalition, the OU booklet will not rate incumbents and challengers; instead, the guide simply lays out the group’s top domestic and international issues.

“We’re not interested in providing scorecards,” said Nathan Diament, head of the group’s Institute for Public Affairs. “We see this as a basic tool for helping our constituents focus on the issues that are important to us — and for informing candidates about what issues our community thinks are critical.”

The guide indicates support for implementation of a resolution calling on the administration to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and for congressional letters opposing U.S. pressure on the Netanyahu government.

The OU also gives the nod to candidates who support school voucher plans and a scheme for “education savings accounts” that will help parents pay for private-school tuition. Both are opposed by more liberal Jewish groups.

At least 8,000 copies of the guide will be distributed by synagogues around the country, and the document will be available on the OU’s web site.

Meanwhile, the Christian Coalition is taking a more aggressive approach to the upcoming congressional elections. The group’s “Blueprint for Victory” lays out a $2.7 million plan for voter registration and a “get-out-the-Christian vote” effort.

In 1996, the Federal Election Commission filed suit, charging that the group, despite its claim to be a nonpartisan educational organization, was operating as a partisan Republican advocate. At the center of that controversy was the group’s detailed voters guides. — James Besser