Republicans and Planned Parenthood square off in Congress

Congressional Republicans on Tuesday challenged Planned Parenthood's U.S. taxpayer support, while the health organization's president said defunding it would disproportionately hurt low-income women.

Allegations that Planned Parenthood improperly sells fetal tissue to researchers for profit have reignited anti-abortion voter fervor during a turbulent Republican presidential primary campaign.

At a U.S. House of Representatives committee hearing, Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards appeared alone to respond to hostile questioning from Republicans, some of whom have vowed to shut down the U.S. government if federal support for the group is not cut off.

“As far as I can tell … this is an organization that doesn't need federal subsidy,” said House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz.

Republican Representative Cynthia Lummis asked Richards why Planned Parenthood needed federal funding.

“You're making a ton of dough,” Lummis said, referring to Richards's annual salary of more than $500,000.

Richards said, “We don’t make any profit off federal money.” She added that Planned Parenthood was one of few health centers that will take in uninsured patients.

Planned Parenthood gets about $500 million annually in federal funds. It has been under fire for months over a series of secretly filmed videos. Produced and posted online by an anti-abortion group, the videos purport to show Planned Parenthood doctors discussing the illegal sale of fetal tissue.

At the hearing, Richards repeated the organization's stance that it has done nothing wrong. “There's been a great deal of misinformation,” she said. “The latest smear campaign is based on efforts by our opponents to trick doctors and clinicians into breaking the law … and our opponents failed.”

Democrats on the panel defended the group and questioned Republicans' motives.

“The disrespect, the misogyny rampant here today tells us what is really going on,” said Democratic Representative Gerald Connolly. “This isn't about some bogus video.”

“This is about some constitutional philosophy that says … we believe in rugged individualism and personal liberty with one big carve-out, and that is except when it comes to women controlling their own bodies and making their own health decisions.”

Affordable tips for decorating kids’ rooms

I have decorated a lot of kids’ rooms in my day. I love it. I find that decorating for the pint-sized set can be a lot more fun than decorating for grown-ups because I get to incorporate a big dose of color and whimsy into the design. And what I’ve learned is that adding color and whimsy doesn’t cost a lot.

Good thing, too, because children grow up so quickly — changing interests as quickly as they change shoe sizes. So, why spend a fortune on decorating if you’re going to have to do it every few years? With these decorating tips, you really can stretch your budget along with your imagination.

Play with wall color

I love to start with a new wall color. A coat of paint can completely change a kid’s room for less than $50 in paint and supplies. And, boy, do I have fun choosing the colors — orange, lime green, turquoise, grape purple, anything but Swiss Coffee! I have no problem choosing bold colors because I know it’s easy to repaint if you or your child wants a new look. 

Think temporary

Incorporate decorating touches that can be removed easily, so you can change them out as your kids grow up. One great option is peel-and-stick wall decals, which are available at Bed, Bath and Beyond, Target and many mass retailers. There are decals with polka dots, flowers, animals, sports themes, inspirational phrases — you name it. They’re easy to put up and easy to take down. 

Always keep this removability factor in mind. I once made a canopy out of a hoop and sheers to hang above a girl’s bed. Although it looked like a permanent fixture, it was actually attached to the ceiling with a 3M Command Hook, so it could be removed anytime without damaging the paint.

Follow a theme by accessorizing

Again, always anticipate a child’s changing tastes. As much as he or she might want a “Star Wars”-themed room, getting a bed in the shape of a Tatooine landspeeder is not the most cost-efficient way to decorate. (I would want one, though. Totally.) Instead, rely on easily replaceable accessories such as bedding, pillows and wall decals. The same goes for hand-painted murals: Don’t invest in custom-drawn artwork for your kids’ walls; if they want a mermaid, a storybook or a dinosaur theme, make it happen through the accessories. 

Allow kids to grow into it

I used to automatically buy twin beds for kids’ rooms. But you know what? Kids get big. Purchasing at least a full-size bed will allow them to be comfortable even when they come home to visit (or live) after they’ve graduated from college. As for other furniture such as dressers, nightstands and bookcases, choose timeless pieces that don’t scream “for kids only.” If it’s too juvenile, you’ll have to replace it by the time they hit the middle school years. 

Make it easy to keep organized

Cleaning their room is just not in kids’ DNA. At least if there are plenty of organizers, they won’t have any excuses. Outfit their room with shelving for books and school supplies, bins and baskets for toys and clothes, and under-bed storage boxes to hide rarely used items. With the right tools, cleaning their room won’t be so much of a chore.

Turn their drawings into art

Sure, the refrigerator door is a nice place to showcase your kids’ artwork, but to really encourage their creativity, treat their drawings and paintings like masterpieces. Even if your child is doodle-challenged, put his or her scribbling in a frame and mat, and it will look like it’s from a modern art exhibition. Interestingly, this kind of art, though juvenile, becomes more treasured as the years go by. I’ll bet many of us wish our parents had kept our childhood drawings. 

Make it interactive

How to spend $24,000 on takeout as prime minister of Israel

$68,000 over two years for makeup and hairstyling.

$1,000 in bottle-deposit refunds.

$20,000 in cleaning costs.

And perhaps most impressively, $24,000 for takeout in one year.

Those numbers are part of the “October surprise” in Israel's election, which will take place on March 17. They come from a report by the state comptroller released Tuesday, and they detail spending by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara.

The impressive takeout figures—an average of $66 every day—are all the more stunning since Netanyahu is provided with a live-in chef. But aren't they—no pun intended—sort of small potatoes?

Read more at The Atlantic.

Obama proposes $3.99 trillion budget, draws scorn from Republicans

President Barack Obama on Monday proposed a $3.99 trillion budget that drew scorn from Republicans and set up battles over tax reform, infrastructure spending, and the quest to prove which party best represents the middle class.

In his fiscal year 2016 budget blueprint, a political document that must be approved by Congress to take effect, Obama proposed a series of programs to help middle-income Americans that he would pay for with higher taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals.

He also sought to show that the United States could increase spending in a fiscally responsible way. The budget foresees a $474 billion deficit, which is 2.5 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, a level economists view as sustainable.

Obama's budget fleshes out proposals from his State of the Union address last month and helps highlight Democratic priorities for the last two years of his presidency and the beginning of the 2016 presidential campaign.

“I know there are Republicans who disagree with my approach. And I've said this before: If they have other ideas for how we can keep America safe, grow our economy, while helping middle-class families feel some sense of economic security, I welcome their ideas,” Obama said.

“But their numbers have to add up. And what we can't do is play politics with folks' economic security, or with our national security.”

Obama spoke from the headquarters of the Department of Homeland Security, a site the White House chose to emphasize its insistence that Republicans fund the agency charged with implementing his controversial executive actions on immigration.

The president said the opposing party would put the nation at risk if they did not fully fund the department. Republicans have threatened to curtail department spending in order to block Obama's executive orders on immigration.

They have said they see room for compromise in areas such as tax reform and infrastructure, but many of Obama's programs, which were rolled out in the weeks before the budget's release, have landed with a thud.

“Today, President Obama laid out a plan for more taxes, more spending, and more of the Washington gridlock that has failed middle-class families,” said John Boehner, Republican speaker of the House of Representatives.

“It may be Groundhog Day, but the American people can't afford a repeat of the same old top-down policies of the past.”

Democrats, however, viewed the budget as a statement of their priorities and a chance to demonstrate that they represent the party that champions middle-income Americans.

“(It) affords him an opportunity to contrast his vision of helping the middle class with the Republican Congress' approach of exacerbating inequality, ignoring the middle class and making the burdens of those who want to enter it even greater,” said Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, which has close ties to the Obama White House.


The budget achieves some $1.8 trillion in deficit reduction over the next 10 years, officials said, through healthcare, tax and immigration reform, but the forecast assumes Republican support for Obama's programs, which is unlikely.

Republicans have blocked immigration reform legislation in the House, for example, and Obama's budget assumes passage of such a bill.

The administration foresees a continuation of the decline in unemployment, forecasting a rate of 5.4 percent in 2015. It currently stands at 5.6 percent.

It also proposes a new infrastructure bank, a 6 percent increase in research and development, and a controversial consolidation of U.S. government agencies. Obama has previously proposed combining trade agencies, but the proposal fizzled.

The budget sets aside $14 billion to strengthen U.S. cybersecurity defenses after a spate of high-profile hackings.

It calls for a one-time, 14 percent tax on an estimated $2.1 trillion in profits piled up abroad by companies such as General Electric and Microsoft, while imposing a 19 percent tax on U.S. companies' future foreign earnings.

It proposes a 7 percent rise in U.S. domestic and military spending, ending “sequester” caps with reforms to crop insurance programs and closing tax loopholes such as one on “carried interest.” Those moves would help fund investments in infrastructure and education.

The budget also would reform rules governing trust funds and raise the capital gains and dividend rates to 28 percent from the current top rates of 23.8 percent.

In foreign policy, the budget funds efforts to support NATO and European allies against Russian aggression.

It requests $8.8 billion to fund U.S. efforts to fight Islamic State militants, bolster Iraq's army and strengthen the “moderate” opposition in Syria.

Israel’s austerity budget advances in Knesset

Israel’s Knesset approved the first reading of the 2013-14 state budget, which has been touted as closing socio-economic gaps in the country.

The budget, which cuts millions of dollars from the defense department, child benefits and transportation projects, was approved early Tuesday morning by a vote of 58-44.

It now moves to the Knesset Finance Committee for review and likely alterations before returning to the Knesset floor for approval on second and third readings.

The Knesset must approve the budget by the end of July or go to new elections.

Total spending in 2013 will be 388 billion shekels (nearly $108 billion), rising the next year to 408 billion shekels ($113.5 billion).

Along with the cuts, the austerity budget also increases income tax by 1.5 percent across the board.

“Rather than evading responsibility, we chose to do the responsible thing because Israel’s economy has no choice but to close the deficit as quickly as possible,” Finance Minister Yair Lapid said at the beginning of the budget debate Monday that stretched into the morning hours of Tuesday.

Many speeches by the opposition accused Lapid of harming the majority of Israelis with the budget proposal.

Party planning from A to Z

Preparing for a bar or bat mitzvah is hard work, involving years of intense study and the courage to lead an entire congregation in prayer. Organizing a party to celebrate this milestone — well, that’s no picnic either.

It can require meticulous planning and research so that the day represents the personality of the young person and is enjoyable for everyone. Before getting too caught up in the process, remember that the occasion is a religious observance for a 12- or 13-year-old, and the celebration should be consistent with such values. 

Where to begin? From the caterer to the DJ to your budget, here are some hints to help you get started. 

Thinking Ahead

Families should be members of a synagogue and enroll their child in Hebrew school three years prior to a bar or bat mitzvah. This will provide enough time for the serious preparation necessary for the big day — and for the celebration afterward. 

At Stephen S Wise Temple, a Reform congregation in Bel Air, b’nai mitzvah students pick a community service project they are passionate about a year in advance. 

“There needs to be focus on the meaning of the day and not getting too caught up in the celebration,” said Jennifer Smith, b’nai mitzvah and social justice coordinator at the synagogue. “Focus more on the ‘mitzvah’ and less on the ‘bar.’ ” 

It is possible to book the ceremony and celebration three years in advance, but one to two years ahead of time usually is sufficient. Choosing a date well in advance lessens the chance that your target date and time becomes unavailable. 

During this time, start thinking about your child’s style and what he or she thinks is important, so you can pick a theme that reflects this. 

First Things First

Once you have a date, estimate a general guest count and choose a desirable location. The number of guests can determine whether your venue is fitting. The first thing to reserve is the venue for the celebration and the caterer. If you don’t have these, then there’s no point in coordinating flowers, balloons and party favors. 

The date and location also are necessary information for the invitations, which should be sent out six to eight weeks prior to the event. If you book everything early enough, then it’s possible to send save-the-date cards to friends and family six to 12 months ahead of time. If you’ve already chosen a theme, this can also be incorporated into the invitations. 

How to Budget

Start by gauging a budget that is reasonable and prioritizing what is important to you. The party shouldn’t be about keeping up with the Joneses or require a large financial setback, but it should be carefully thought out. 

“People tend to think that they can do a lot of it on their own, but toward the last month or so they get overwhelmed,” said Vanessa Kovac, owner of 2K Event Productions.

Israeli markets cheer centrists’ election gains

Israeli markets rose on Wednesday on investor hopes that the outcome of the previous day's election means Benjamin Netanyahu will remain prime minister and ultra-Orthodox parties have no role in government.

The blue-chip Tel Aviv 25 index rose 1 percent to 1,204.65 points, near last week's year-high of 1,225.76, while the broader TA-100 index closed 0.9 percent higher.

Government bond prices gained as much as 0.5 percent and the shekel appreciated 0.4 percent to 3.722 per dollar from Monday's fixing of 3.738, near a 10-month peak.

“We will enjoy this for a few days,” said Zach Herzog, head of foreign sales at the Psagot brokerage. “The downside will be if the coalition talks drag on or if we see Labour or (ultra-Orthodox) Shas in serious talks to get involved.

“This can be a launching pad for a positive 2013,” he added.

Herzog said a coalition government more centrist than Netanyahu's current right-wing and religious administration would be better placed to impose needed budget cuts.

Ultra-Orthodox parties have traditionally demanded budget-draining state subsidies for their institutions in return for joining coalitions in Israel, where no one party has ever won a parliamentary majority on its own.

Results of Tuesday's parliamentary vote showed Netanyahu's right-wing Likud-Beitenu group emerging on top with 31 of parliament's 120 seats, albeit dropping sharply from the current 42 after voters shifted support to centrists focusing on Israelis' rising cost of living.

Yesh Atid, a new centrist party that has pledged to ease the burden of Israel's middle class, took 19 seats, one more than the number won by ultra-Orthodox parties.

If Yesh Atid's leader, former TV news anchor Yair Lapid, opts to join a Netanyahu coalition, along with the far-right Jewish Home party, the prime minister would likely control 61 seats, giving him a narrow parliamentary majority.

Netanyahu, however, has said he hopes to form as broad a government as possible, signaling the way was open for ultra-Orthodox factions to participate.


Netanyahu's reputations as a skilled economic operator was harmed just before the election when data showed Israel posted a budget deficit of 4.2 percent of gross domestic product in 2012 – more than double its initial target.

To meet a target of 3 percent in 2013, the government – which overspent heavily the past two years to keep its previous coalition partners happy – will have to find some 15 billion shekels ($4 billion) of cuts, as well as raising taxes.

Credit agency Fitch forecast the deficit reaching 3.8 percent of GDP this year, saying the stable outlook on its 'A' rating risked being downgraded in the event of “serious fiscal slippage”.

But a move towards the government's 60 percent debt-to-GDP target could result in positive ratings action, its sovereign ratings director Paul Gamble said in a report on Wednesday.

He also said the coalition talks would focus on budgetary issues and likely be time-consuming.

Psagot's Herzog said the market was also pleased that the centre-left Labour Party, whose leader, Shelly Yachimovich, has railed against capitalism during the election campaign, received just 15 seats, a poor than expected showing.

“In addition to the positive result that Netanyahu was re-elected as prime minister, you have a significant blow to the prestige to the anti-business candidate,” Herzog said.

A currency dealer at a large Israeli bank said most of Wednesday's dollar selling came from local rather than offshore customers. He said there was still a way for the dollar to fall before its next support level at 3.7050 shekels.

According to financial information services firm Markit, Israeli five-year credit default swaps – which insure against debt default – edged up 125 basis points from 123 on Monday. They had been at 156 basis points in November when military tensions escalated in the Gaza Strip.

Additional reporting by Tova Cohen and Carolyn Cohn; Editing by Jeffrey Heller, John Stonestreet

Israel’s budget deficit soars

Israel’s budget deficit for 2012 was more than double the government target, coming in at 4.2 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In addition, debt is 74 percent of GDP, making economic growth in Israel difficult.

“I think the average Israeli should be very concerned,” Professor Omer Moav, an economist at the University of Warwick in London and Hebrew University, told The Media Line. “The deficit is about $10 billion, which means more than $5,000 per Israeli household. We will have to pay it back – we, our children and our grandchildren.”

The announcement of the deficit came just over a week before Israel’s national election and quickly became a campaign issue.

“Over and over again Netanyahu sets deficit targets that he is unable to meet,” sniped Labor party leader Shelly Yacimovich, who hopes to lead her party to the number two slot after Netanyahu. “In the meantime he is digging a deep hole that he plans to fill with the decreasing funds of the poor and middle class.”

Moav says that Israel’s cost of maintaining its debt is relatively high because Israel pays higher interest rates.

“Israel is a risk economy,” he said. “The political risks and security risks translate into higher interest rates.”

Israel also spends an estimated 6.5 percent of GDP on defense, one of the highest percentages in the Western world. Combine that with the fact that large sectors of Israel’s population – the ultra-Orthodox and the Arab citizens of Israel – have significantly lower employment rates. Those who do work often have low salaries and do not pay taxes, meaning that those who do pay taxes pay more.

Economists here say Israel must cut its spending and increase its tax collection to pare down the debt burden. They say that the Israeli economy is not yet in crisis but it is moving in that direction.

“We are losing our flexibility,” Eyal Kimhi, the Deputy Director of the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel and a professor at Hebrew University, told the Media Line. “Unemployment here is pretty good, and the economy is still growing although slowly. But Israel will have to increase spending to counter the slowdown and then the deficit will increase even more.”

As that happens, Kimhi says, Israel will find it harder to raise the credit to cover the deficit, and the country will have to spend even more on interest payments.

The 2013 budget will be the first item on the new government’s table after the elections. Current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to form the next government with a series of coalition partners. The problem, many say, is that each partner comes with its own set of political and economic demands. Perhaps for this reason Netanyahu may prefer a coalition with centrist parties, rather than the ultra-Orthodox, who make financial demands that could increase the deficit even further.

Fiscal cliff or path of righteousness?

There is a lot of talk about the fiscal cliff — the self-imposed Jan. 1 deadline by which time a budget agreement must be passed and signed or there will be automatic cuts to defense and social programs of more than $1 trillion. In order to avert this self-imposed disaster, President Barack Obama has proposed to sunset the tax cuts on the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans, those earning more than $250,000, while maintaining needed tax cuts for the other 98 percent.

A fascinating story in the Talmud discusses labor relations in late antiquity. A certain rabbi by the name of Rabbah bar bar Hannah hired two porters to carry jugs of wine for him. Something happened — whether negligence or accident is not clear — and the jugs broke. Rabbah bar bar Hannah was understandably angry and grabbed their cloaks as compensation for the damage. The porters went to another rabbi named Rav to adjudicate the dispute and perhaps get them their cloaks back. Rav immediately ordered that the garments be returned.

The porters then cried out: “We have been working all day, and now we have no money and nothing to eat.” Rav ordered that Rabbah bar bar Hannah pay them their wages. Rabbah was not happy. He challenged Rav: “Are you ordering me to do these things because it is the law? Or are you doing this in your capacity as a pastor and you are urging me to hold myself to a higher standard than the law?” Rav answered: “It is the law. The ruling is grounded in a verse from Proverbs: ‘So follow the way of the good and keep to the paths of the just.’ ”

Rav, 1,500 years ago in Babylonia, laid claim to the principle that one cannot morally separate economic issues from matters of justice. A just community is a community of obligation, according to the Jewish tradition; it is a community in which residency is measured by the legal obligations that one has to support the various parts of the social safety net (funds for food, clothing, housing, etc.). The ancient rabbis recognized that the needs of the community were not going to be met by personal philanthropy. Even the biblically mandated tithing and gleaning and gifting to the poor were geographically based and therefore inefficient in reaching the largest number of needy people with the maximal resources. They therefore set it up as an obligation on the city itself, through its political mechanisms, to support the needy.

Jewish communities over the centuries, when they have had judicial autonomy (that is, the opportunity to rule themselves according to Jewish law), set up systems of taxation in order to ensure that the poor and needy were taken care of.

We now live in a time that maximizes the ability to participate in the political process and thereby to be responsible for its effects. This is also a time when the economic crunch hits the most vulnerable among us the hardest. According to a report authored by Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, 30.7 million children will be affected by the $2.7 billion in cuts that will be necessary if we shoot ourselves in the face by not reaching a budget agreement. On the other hand, the money that is raised from the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans (from a tax increase that starts only on income earned after the first $250,000) can allow the government to fund the programs that keep hunger at bay, homelessness under control, and allow children to start down a path of education and growth that will develop them as human beings and citizens of this country.

This is the choice we face. The way toward a more perfect union is the path of righteousness and justice. For this reason, we must urge our representatives to back the president’s plan to allow the tax cuts on the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans to expire. It should be the law because it is just and good.

Rabbi Aryeh Cohen is professor of rabbinic literature at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Literature of the American Jewish University. He is the author of “Justice in the City: An Argument From the Sources of Rabbinic Judaism” and is on the national board of Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice.

JCPA to Congress on budget: Remember the most vulnerable

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs is calling on Congress to think about “the most vulnerable among us” as it works on creating a budget and avoiding the fiscal cliff.

“We believe that deficit reduction should be carefully calibrated to ensure that the most vulnerable among us are protected, opportunity for all is promoted, and justice is pursued,” Rabbi Steve Gutow, president and CEO of JCPA, wrote in a letter that was delivered Monday to Congress.

“At this point, as millions remain out of work and the poverty rate continues to be unacceptably high, it is critical that the institutional pathways to prosperity remain open and wide,” the two-page letter said.

The letter, which lists numerous programs, calls on Congress to “support a balanced deficit reduction plan that promotes the health of our nation’s economy while also insuring the sustainability and effectiveness of anti-poverty programs.”

JCPA is the national policy umbrella group of the American Jewish community.

Jews push for Prop. 30

With recent polls showing that support has fallen below 50 percent for Proposition  30 — Gov. Jerry Brown’s temporary tax hike initiative that would help fund education across California — Jewish organizers working on behalf of the measure are working hard to convince Californians to approve the measure. 

“The funding that it will secure and the devastating cuts that it will prevent are reason enough for all Californians to get interested in Prop. 30,” Bend the Arc Southern California Regional Organizer Maya Barron said. “It’s really scary that the polling numbers are slipping.”

California’s 2012-13 budget plan includes $6 billion worth of “trigger cuts” that will take effect if Proposition 30 fails to gain passage. Proposition 30 would raise the income tax on individuals making more than $250,000 per year for seven years and would increase sales tax in California to 7.5 percent from 7.25 percent for four years. If voters reject the measure, K-12 schools, community colleges and the state university system would have to cut a combined $5.8 billion from their 2012-13 budget. LAUSD Superintendent John E. Deasy has said that if the proposition doesn’t pass, 15 days will be cut from the 2012-13 school year, beyond the five days of classes that already have been cut.

“The impact on education is so important, and will take effect at all levels,” Barron said. “Three weeks less of school in their public schools will make a significant difference in their lives.”

A poll conducted in mid-October by the University of Southern California for the Los Angeles Times showed that only 46 percent of Californians support Proposition 30, while 42 percent oppose it. 

Proponents of the measure, including the California Teachers Association, have spent nearly $62 million advocating for Proposition 30; opponents have spent almost $53 million, with more than half of that coming from investor Charles Munger Jr. 

Over the last month, Bend the Arc has held four house parties to talk about its recommendations for how to vote on the different California ballot measures, paying particular attention to Proposition 30. 

Opponents of Prop. 30 argue that the trigger cuts can be avoided. 

“The trigger cuts that are threatened are like a kidnapping plot,” Susan Shelley said at a debate about Proposition 30 held at Temple Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills on Oct. 28. “They are not legally required; they are not mandatory.” 

Video of the event was posted on YouTube by Shelley, a Republican who ran for Congress in the West San Fernando Valley earlier this year with the endorsement of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, a group that has spent more than $600,000 opposing Prop. 30. 

California Assembly Budget Chair Bob Blumenfield, who spoke in favor of Proposition 30 at the Woodland Hills debate, rejected Shelley’s assertion. 

Gov. Brown “is going to veto anything that we try to do to rejigger the triggers,” Blumenfield said.

Ayn Rand … Rosenbaum?

The first public cause to which Ayn Rand donated her own money was the State of Israel.

I find this little-known nugget fascinating for two reasons.

One, it contradicts the idée fixe of Rand as not really Jewish. And two, it contradicts the philosophy of Ayn Rand.

Rand’s followers often obscure, or quickly pass over, her Jewishness.  The official Ayn Rand Web site,, doesn’t mention it. Neither does the Web site of her most popular book,, nor the hagiographical site,

But none of this is exactly a secret. In her excellent 2011 book about Rand, “Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right,” Jennifer Burns tells the story. Alisa Rosenbaum was born in St. Petersburg, Russia on Feb. 2, 1905, to Zinovy Rosenbaum, a pharmacist, and Anna Rosenbaum, the high-strung daughter of a wealthy tailor, whose clients included the Russian Army.  The Rosenbaums were largely non-observant, but celebrated Passover and were by no means completely assimilated—Alisa sat out of class during religious instruction.

[Related: How Paul Ryan will motivate Jewish voters]

Intellectual, withdrawn and immersed in her fantasy worlds, Alisa yearned to leave her country behind. When she was 21, Jewish relatives in Chicago—the Portnoys, of all names—helped her arrange a visa.  Once in America, she grew tired of her relatives’ insular Jewish world, and headed for the source — you could say the fountainhead — of her fantasy: Hollywood.

In Hollywood, the aspiring screenwriter Alisa Rosenbaum became Ayn Rand. An Eastern European émigré who breaks free from the claws of tradition and family, gentrifies her name, assimilates and devotes herself to creating stories about an idealized America — if that’s not the very definition of a 20th century Jew, what is?

Rand was a classic 20th-century Jew in another way as well: she was a devout atheist. She replaced God with her philosophy, just as Freud did with psychology and Einstein with physics. She loathed religion as much as the Communists, whom she loathed, loathed religion. In a 1979 interview, Rand told talk-show host Phil Donahue that religion, “gives man permission to function irrationally, to accept something above and outside the power of their reason.”

All this matters now because Ayn Rand matters now — perhaps more than ever. Gov. Mitt Romney’s pick for vice president, Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, is a self-described Ayn Rand devotee — and not of her early screenplays.

Ryan requires all his staff members to read Rand’s seminal novels, “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead.” The ideas she developed in these novels, as Burns writes, have become the ideological touchstones of the modern Conservative movement.

“Rand advanced a deeply negative portrait of government action,” Burns writes. “In her work, the state is always the destroyer, acting to frustrate the natural ingenuity and drive of individuals. Her work … helped inspire a broad intellectual movement that challenged the liberal welfare state and proclaimed the desirability of free markets.”

It is hard to read Ryan’s plan for addressing the Federal deficit and not see Rand’s ideological pencil marks.

The Ryan budget, wrote David Stockman, the conservative Republican former budget director under President Ronald Reagan, “shreds the measly means-tested safety net for the vulnerable: the roughly $100 billion per year for food stamps and cash assistance for needy families and the $300 billion budget for Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor and disabled.”

In other words, the Ryan budget is Ayn Rand’s philosophy made flesh. 

I understand the origins of Rand’s emphasis on initiative and ingenuity. She was an exceptional individual, an outsider who by sheer force of intellect and will forged not just a life, but a movement. 

I understand her faith in capitalism and the free market. The Bolsheviks shattered her family, and few understood better than she the failure of Communism.

I even understand her rejection of religion — in her day it was most often a force of repression and superstition.

What I don’t understand is how, given these beliefs, Rand also could urge her followers to donate money to Israel.

“Give all help possible to Israel,” said Rand, then in her late 60s, in a lecture in 1973. “Consider what is at stake.”

Rand made clear she loathed Arabs and the Soviet Union, and saw Israel as a bulwark against both — even if it was socialist.

“This is the first time I’ve contributed to a public cause,” Rand said, “helping Israel in an emergency.”

Really, how do you explain such a thing? True, she saw Arab culture as “primitive,” but she acknowledged individuals had no responsibility to help citizens of other countries. She didn’t act out of logic or rationality — she acted because she felt, in dire circumstances—part of a collective. In that time, I believe, she wasn’t The Individual, she was part of a group: The Jews.

That feeling, that impulse, may not be rational, but it is powerful. There is a very real sense, as Jews, as Americans, as people, that we are bonded to one another despite, or even because of, our essential individualism. 

Rand’s religious blind spot is also Ryan’s policy blind spot. The most successful countries on Earth do not just fund defense, police and the courts, as Rand would have it. They invest in research, education and innovation. They provide a safety net to the sick and needy. They keep defense spending in check. They protect the environment from over-exploitation. They make cuts and raise taxes, so that society’s costs and benefits are shared.

Ayn Rand couldn’t see this. I hope Paul Ryan can.

Ryan hailed by Jewish GOPers, organizations see him as a face of budget confrontations

Anointing Paul Ryan as his running mate, Mitt Romney attached a name and face to his fiscal policy.

Jewish Republicans, including the House majority leader, say they are thrilled with Wisconsin’s Ryan emerging as the ticket’s fresh face, hailing the lawmaker as a thoughtful and creative budget guru bent on taming out-of-control federal spending.

Ryan’s name is well known to Jewish community leaders who have been grappling with the Republicans’ chief budget shaper since the party retook the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010.

It’s just not one they’re happy pronouncing.

The Washington groups that deal with budget policy have had many interactions with Ryan, who as chairman of the House Budget Committee authors Congress’ proposed budget.

They have not been happy ones, although speaking on background, the first thing Ryan’s Jewish and Democratic interlocutors emphasize is that he is as affable and gracious one on one as he appears to be in public. But Jewish groups see Ryan’s plan threatening Medicare and Medicaid, programs that are cornerstones of care for the Jewish elderly—a population growing faster than among most other religious and ethnic groups.

“The Republicans can write off Florida, or at least its Jewish vote,” said one organizational insider who has a strong working relationship with both parties.

Jewish Democrats made it clear that they were ready to seize the moment.

“Ryan’s signature budget plan drew the profound concern and even ire of many in the American Jewish community because of its plans to end Medicare as we know it, slash vital social safety net programs, and increase the burden on seniors, the middle class and the poor—yet Romney today proudly hitched his horse to Ryan’s dangerous plan,” the National Jewish Democratic Council said Saturday after Romney, the presumptive GOP presidential candidate, announced his pick.

Ryan and his defenders argue that his proposals will drive down costs by spurring competitive pricing and save popular entitlement programs from eventual bankruptcy.

“Paul Ryan has challenged both party leaderships in Washington to face up to growing fiscal problems that threaten to blight our nation’s future.,” the Republican Jewish Coalition said in its statement welcoming Romney’s announcement on Saturday.  “And while congressional Republicans have responded to the challenge, Democrats have ducked responsibility.”

Outside of his leaderdship on budget issues, Ryan, 42, has not been preeminent in many of the areas that traditionally have attracted Jewish organizational interest.
Elected in 1998, he visited Israel in 2005 on a trip organized by the American Israel Education Foundation, an affiliate of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Along with Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), he has joined Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House majority leader, as the “young guns” heralding a more robustly conservative Republican Party, one that appeals more to the Tea Party insurgents who fueled the Republican takeover of the House in 2010.

Cantor has often pointed out the diversity embodied by the trio—Cantor is a Southeastern observant Jew, Ryan is a Midwestern Roman Catholic and McCarthy is a Western Protestant.

“Having worked closely with Paul, I’ve seen firsthand the energy and commitment he brings to pursuing the kind of pro-growth economic policies we need to create jobs and reduce our massive debt,” Cantor said in a statement. “Quite simply, Mitt Romney could not have made a finer choice for the future direction of our country.”

Ryan has followed Cantor’s lead on foreign policy, co-sponsoring signature pieces of legislation that the majority leader initiated, most recently one that enhances security cooperation between the United States and Israel.

“America has no better friend in the Middle East than the nation of Israel. Not only is Israel the region’s only fully functioning democracy, with a government based on popular consent and the rule of law, but it is also a valuable ally against Islamic extremism and terrorism,” Ryan says on his congressional page.

Ryan has not interacted extensively with the small Jewish community in Wisconsin, but those who have met him say he’s an eager student of the Middle East.

“He’s thought a lot about those issues, although he might not be an expert like he is on the nitty gritty of the budget,” said Nat Sattler, who has been active in Wisconsin Republican politics and who has met Ryan at Republican and pro-Israel events. “Knowing his ability to suck up information, I’m sure he is becoming an expert.”

Ryan has backed cuts to the overall foreign assistance budget, although he favors funding at current levels for Israel. AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups generally are committed to maintaining foreign assistance funding overall, and not just for Israel.

It is in the area of domestic spending that the clashes between Ryan and the Jewish organizational community have been evident.

On the record, however, organizational criticism often does not often name Ryan because such groups do not want to make enemies or to seem partisan. But even absent names and party affiliation it can be scathing.

In 2011, the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs – the two leading policy umbrellas addressing economic issues – were blunt in a joint letter to Congress members slamming plans that originated with Ryan that would transition parts of Medicare, the medical program for the elderly, to a Medicare Exchange in which a variety of private plans would be made available.

The plan also would convey funds for Medicaid, government-funded insurance for the poor, in block grants to the states. JFNA and JCPA objected to the loosening of federal controls over how such money is spent.

“We recognize that this country’s very significant budget deficit threatens the long-term prosperity of our nation,” it said. “We also believe that the major entitlement programs protect the health and economic security of our most vulnerable citizens.”

It continued: “Within the current framework of Medicaid and Medicare, we believe that it is possible to restrain growth and rein in costs,” read the April 2011 letter.  “We are capable of strengthening their long-term viability without a fundamental restructuring that turns Medicaid into a block grant or Medicare into a voucher program.”

As the budget debate has become more rancorous this year, the JFNA has opted out, although among other Jewish groups the criticism has become more pointed.

Also featuring in the Jewish criticism of Ryan’s plans are his proposals to slash spending on assistance for the poor, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly known as food stamps.

The Reform movement’s Religious Action Center has taken to naming Ryan in its broadsides against his budget.

“By ending the entitlement status of Medicaid and Medicare, fundamentally altering the tax system, and slashing spending for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and education programs, the Ryan plan would turn our backs on our obligation to care for all Americans,” said a statement in March from the RAC. “We are commanded in Deuteronomy, ‘Do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman.’ ”

Ryan’s defenders note that much of his plan was shaped in coordination with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who happens to be Jewish—although Wyden now disavows much of the claim. Wyden notes that he joined Ryan in shaping the plan in part based on the understanding that it would keep intact President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which Romney and Ryan have pledged to repeal.

“If you repeal the Affordable Care Act, what Mr. Romney is saying is, he just wishes for the best,” Wyden told the Oregonian.

Jewish community officials say that privatization of entitlement programs is more likely to drive up costs for individuals than it is to keep overall costs down.

“A competition approach is not appropriate for people who are higher risk,” said Rachel Goldberg, the director of senior advocacy for B’nai B’rith International. Ryan’s plan, she said, would lure younger and healthier Medicare-eligible Americans into cheaper plans, which in turn would drive up costs for older and less healthy citizens.

Ryan’s defenders note that Obama’s plan also incorporates cuts to Medicare. They argue that Ryan’s plan, broadening options for recipients, is the more efficient and the likelier to prevent further cuts.

“Everyone acknowledges the program is the foremost driver of our long-term debt,” Rich Lowry wrote in National Review Online. “Both Ryan and the president use the same formula of roughly GDP growth plus inflation for setting Medicare’s global budget. The difference is that the president wants a bureaucratic board to get the savings through arbitrary limits on prices that ultimately will limit access to care, while Ryan wants to get the savings through competition and choice.”

How Ryan will motivate Jewish voters

Mitt Romney’s choice of Rep. Paul Ryan to be his running mate on the Republican ticket will help win Jewish votes.  For the Democrats.

Ryan may help Romney shore up support among Tea Partiers and evangelicals who don’t really trust his claims of conversion to their cause, but it is those issues that will cost him Jewish support.

Like everyone else in the Republican primaries, Romney ran hard to the right and was expected to follow the Nixon dictum and pivot toward the center for the general election.  Even senior advisors expected that when one spoke of the Etch-A-Sketch campaign.  But instead Romney moved further to the right with his choice of a running mate.

Turnout is critical and each party will be using Ryan to motivate its base to go to the polls, but for Republicans that appeal to hardline conservatives could cost them votes among undecided Jewish voters and independents in the center whose support will be critical in an election as close as this one appears to be.

Romney’s effort to make Israel a partisan wedge issue in this campaign is overrated.  Jews will still vote overwhelmingly Democratic again this year and it is questionable whether the GOP can draw off enough of their votes to make a difference in battleground states like Ohio, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Medicare-sensitive Florida. His real goal isn’t really votes anyway. It’s big bucks from conservative, deep-pocket donors who put Israel at the top of their agenda.

Foreign and defense policies are the Romney-Ryan ticket’s weak spots.  Neither man has any foreign policy experience — Romney’s recent overseas trip showed he’s not ready for prime time in that realm — and their combined military experience constitutes running down the gangplank on a mothballed World War II battleship Saturday morning to announce the young Wisconsin congressman’s selection.

While Republicans argue that Ryan’s presence on the ticket will enhance its focus on jobs and the economy, in reality it will shift the focus to his budget proposals that would significantly alter Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and a host of other entitlement programs high on the Jewish agenda.

Romney has praised the Ryan budget as “marvelous” and said if he were president and it landed on his desk, he would sign it.  Translation:  He just bought it and made it his own.

Campaign aides scampered to distance Romney from the Ryan proposals, saying he’d have his own plan once elected, but his longstanding aversion to providing any specifics leaves the Ryan budget — now the Ryan-Romney budget — to fill the vacuum and provide Democrats a very inviting target for hard-hitting attack ads.

Ryan’s proposals call for cutting funding for social programs so deeply that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and a national group of nuns have publicly criticized it as harmful to the neediest in society.

The National Jewish Democratic Council, a partisan group, noted that “A broad array of Jewish groups have criticized elements of Ryan’s budget proposals, although without naming him.”

Ryan, who chairs the House Budget Committee, is one of the most conservative members of the Republican Caucus.  The bishops and nuns may not like his plans to cut programs that “serve poor and vulnerable people,” but, unlike most Jewish voters, they do like his hardline views on abortion, gay marriage and reproductive rights.

Most damaging to the ticket may be his proposals to privatize Social Security, transform Medicare into a voucher system and turn Medicaid over to the states through block grants.

Democrats have dusted off their mantra and you’ll be hearing it a lot:  Romney and Ryan want to “end Medicare as we know it.”

Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who chairs the Democratic National Committee and is Jewish, said “families and seniors in my home state of Florida want no part of a Romney-Ryan economic scheme that puts millionaires ahead of Medicare.”

Imagine if George W. Bush had gotten his way in 2005 when he proposed privatizing Social Security by allowing contributors to put their money into the stock market instead of the government trust fund.  Much of that money would have been lost when the Bush administration plunged the country into its deepest recession ever.

Social Security is the proverbial third rail of politics and Romney may have just stepped on it.

The Ryan-Romney budget calls for more tax cuts for millionaires like Romney and his fat-cat contributors while making Draconian cuts in federal spending on food safety, energy research, environmental protection, infrastructure, college tuition aid, food stamps, prescription drug coverage, workplace safety, women’s health coverage, consumer protection, product safety and the like.

Ryan could do more to keep Jewish voters in the Democratic column than any other single factor in this election.  Republicans will try to avoid specifics about the impact of Romney-Ryan policies and they will tout Ryan’s courage in tackling tough fiscal issues like entitlements, but voters like their entitlements (not so much yours, but they like their own), and if they fear Ryan and Romney will take them away, they’ll vote Democratic.  Again.

Jewish voters, with their strong affinity for programs serving the needy and the elderly, could be the first to punch the “no sale” button on the Romney-Ryan ticket.

©2012 Douglas M. Bloomfield

Partisan Jewish groups focus on budget in assessing Ryan pick

Partisan Jewish groups focused on Paul Ryan’s leading role in the budget stand-off in assessing Mitt Romney’s pick as running mate.

Rep. Ryan (R-Wis.), the chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives budget committee, has taken a lead role in the stand-off between the White House and the Democratic-led Senate on one side and the Republican-led House on the other, that has stymied passage of a budget.

“Paul Ryan has challenged both party leaderships in Washington to face up to growing fiscal problems that threaten to blight our nation’s future,” Matt Brooks, the director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said Saturday after Romney, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, presented Ryan as his vice presidential pick at a rally in Norfolk, Va.  “And while congressional Republicans have responded to the challenge, Democrats have ducked responsibility.”

The National Jewish Democratic Council said Ryan does “not reflect Jewish community values.”

David Harris, the NJDC president, said in a statement that “Ryan’s signature budget plan drew the profound concern and even ire of many in the American Jewish community because of its plans to end Medicare as we know it, slash vital social safety net programs, and increase the burden on seniors, the middle class, and the poor.”

A broad array of Jewish groups have criticized elements of Ryan’s budget proposals, although without naming him.

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Jewish public policy umbrella, the Reform movement and B’nai B’rith International have protested proposed GOP cuts to social safety net programs, including Medicaid, which provides medical coverage for the poor, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly known as food stamps.

The Jewish Federations of North America has this year maintained a low profile in the rancorous budget debate, and has not weighed in on Ryan’s proposals.

In 2011, however, JFNA was bluntly critical of plans that originated with Ryan to transition parts of Medicare, the medical program for the elderly, into a voucher program, and to convey Medicaid funds in block grants to the states, which reduces federal controls over how the money is spent.

“Within the current framework of Medicaid and Medicare, we believe that it is possible to restrain growth and rein in costs,” read the the April 2011 from JFNA and JCPA to Congress members. “We are capable of strengthening their long-term viability without a fundamental restructuring that turns Medicaid into a block grant or Medicare into a voucher program.”

Ryan, 42, is likely to help Romney, the former Masachusetts governor, in keeping the right wing of the party energized.

A close associate of House majority leader Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the most senior Jewish lawmaker in Congress, Ryan is a stalwart of budget and social policy hawks who are wary of Romney because of his reputation as a moderate.

Ryan also will be valuable to the campaign in his home state and in neighboring Michigan, both considered possible swing states.

Can California be saved?

We Californians love to use direct democracy to perform amateur surgery on our state government. As heirs to a century-old tradition of progressive reform, we believe that if we tinker with the rules, we will get much better outcomes. We believe that the people best suited to make these changes are the voters. Each statewide election now seems to include one or more proposals to reform either campaigns or government structures.

Like any surgery done by amateurs, however, reform is a hit-and-miss thing. We are not always clear about the specific ailment we are trying to fix, and we are not always careful to see whether the reform will ameliorate the illness or harm the patient. The presumed results are too often overstated by supporters of ballot measures in order to win voter support. And we sometimes don’t recognize the really big structural challenges, like Proposition 13, that can make reform efforts seem fruitless.

But when we do it right, we can get good results.

A good example is the set of budget reforms passed in 2010. Californians were sick of Sacramento’s history of late budgets and partisan wrangling, which went on for months after all deadlines had passed. In November 2010, California voters changed the percentage of votes needed to pass a budget from two thirds of each house of the legislature to a simple majority. And since we usually add a stick to any carrot, voters also ruled that legislators would not get paid if they did not complete the budget process on time.

Guess what? It actually worked. Last year’s budget was pretty much on time, and have you noticed that the June 15 deadline for legislative approval is likely to be met this year, even with bad revenue projections? (Of course, this reform’s success may stem, in part, from the single-party dominance in both houses and the governorship, and does not guarantee success if party control is split and one party’s members do not mind losing their pay.) So, at least for now, it seems that one of the most visible, damaging failures of state government has been fixed by a voter-approved bit of meatball surgery.

Sometimes, these reforms don’t work well at all. California’s legislature, made full time and granted resources for staff support by voters in 1966, became known as the best in the nation. But by the late 1980s, people were angry at the legislature and wanted more “amateurs” than politicians in office.

In 1990, the electorate created term limits for state officials, along with major cuts in the resources for the legislators. Starving the legislature of durable careers and of effective staff, led to — duh — a much less effective legislature. So much so that now most key decisions are made by the leadership. And instead of amateurs, we have professional politicians playing musical chairs — running between offices. In this month’s primary election, Proposition 28 passed, allowing legislators to serve up to 12 years in one house. Maybe some legislators will once again become true members of the Assembly or the Senate.

The biggest surgery this year was set up by the voters in 2008 and 2010. Anger against incumbents and their ability to draw their own districts drove the citizen-redistricting plan created in 2008 and extended to congressional districts in 2010. The top-two open primary, passed in 2010, was bolstered by anger against the polarized political parties. Both changes reflect the reform philosophy of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who liked to blame his own lack of success with the budget on the rigidity of both parties. His goal was to create opportunities for more competitive elections, and to bring more moderates into office who might be willing to cross party lines. This is part of the increasingly visible struggle of Republican moderates against Grover Norquist and his anti-tax bludgeon. (The latest Republican to challenge the anti-tax united front was former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.) 

While citizen redistricting clearly knocked incumbents of both parties for a loop, it was not actually designed to get rid of one-party districts and replace them with districts that would be more competitive between the two parties. By contrast, the top-two primary aims to do precisely that.

Early evidence suggests it might get there in a few election cycles. When two members of the same party meet in the runoff, as in the contentious Berman-Sherman congressional race in Los Angeles, the winner might be the one who draws cross-party support.

The new system encouraged some members of the embattled and shrinking Republican Party to run as independents, most notably Linda Parks, who ran for a congressional seat in Ventura County, but failed to finish higher than third. Maybe next time an independent candidate will break through.

But if we truly want to talk about change, we will probably have to reopen the conversation about Proposition 13. This constitutional amendment, passed in 1978, was the mother of all voter-approved measures. Its passage transformed California — and even national politics — foreshadowing the election of Ronald Reagan as president two years later. 

Passed by a comfortable margin, Proposition 13 profoundly reshaped California government. In limiting property taxes to 1 percent of assessed home value, Proposition 13 has been credited with saving homeownership for many California residents. But Proposition 13 did much more. It led to a shift in control of property-tax revenue and school funding from local school districts to the state. It placed in the state Constitution the requirement of a two-thirds majority in the legislature to pass new taxes. With Republicans united around the no-tax pledge, even as a minority they can effectively implement a tax boycott and force revenue measures to the ballot, as they will do this November. Proposition 13 reduced state revenue by limiting property tax not only on homes, but also on commercial property. It led to an increased dependence on sales tax revenue at the local level, causing localities to compete for big-box stores.

Proposition 13 both reflected and accelerated an era of declining government revenues and credibility. As state and local governments shredded services, their ability to inspire public confidence declined further. Now cutbacks have become the norm, and fewer and fewer voters have direct personal experience with a state and local system of government that can show its value.

A true conversation about reforming Proposition 13 would be the ultimate governance debate in California, because, to its credit, Proposition 13 did not tinker. Its political appeal remains undeniable to this day, although unlike President Barack Obama’s health-care plan, the overall image of the measure may be more popular than some of its individual components. Addressing Proposition 13 head-on will require facing directly and without flinching the fundamental choices of how California governance will work in the 21st century.

A true debate on Proposition 13 will place pressure on both parties. If there is any likelihood of eliminating the two-thirds rule for new taxes, Republicans in the legislature would have an incentive to end their tax blockade, if only to hold onto some portion of their power by demonstrating that such reform is not needed.

Democrats would have to lift their heads out of the sands of endless budget crises, fears of pension calamities and devastating program cuts to demonstrate that they can be trusted to make such a radical surgery worthwhile, that they have a vision for California government that would make unshackling majority legislative rule worthwhile, to show that government can be useful but also efficient and accountable. When it comes to government in the post-Proposition 13 world, the voters want proof.

There are many ironies in reform. Outcomes are never quite what people expect. Republicans favored the citizen-redistricting reform, and then some were unhappy when the outcome meant more seats for Democrats. Democrats favored the majority vote on the budget but now find themselves answering to unhappy voters for budget cuts that can no longer be blamed on Republican demands. If the two-thirds rule is ever repealed by the voters, Democrats would have to face the unpopular decision to raise taxes by legislative decision, giving Republicans their first really potent issue in a generation if the money raised is not well spent.

Nevertheless, despite all these unknowns, it is still worth unraveling how previous choices we have made have shaped the choices we face today. 

It is then up to us to decide what, if anything, we want to do about it.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is executive director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Fullerton.

Jewish groups, Senate Dems talk Iran and budget

There was common ground on Iran and preserving the social safety net at a meeting between Democratic senators and Jewish community leaders, although subtle tensions on both issues emerged.

In the back-and-forth on Capitol Hill, the senators pushed back against the notion that the Obama administration is not wholly committed to keeping Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb. And in a refrain familiar to such exchanges, senators urged Jewish groups to lobby not just for spending but also for tax hikes.

Most of the Jewish organizational speakers at the May 23 event began by praising the Senate for passing the latest round of Iran sanctions, which would tighten existing bans on dealing with that country’s energy sector.

At least 25 senators—just under half the 53-member Democratic caucus—attended the meeting convened by the Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee and led by Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), who chairs the outreach committee.

Such meetings take place every year to year-and-a-half. Senate Republicans once convened similar meetings, but they have fallen off in recent years.

Seventeen Jewish groups were represented at the off-the-record event. JTA spoke with seven particpants, three of whom took notes.

Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the majority leader and the first senator to speak, said a nonbinding resolution defining an Iranian capability to build a nuclear weapon as a “red line” would soon be passed. The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed similar legislation.

For years the U.S. government “red line,” signifying an actionable threat, has been Iran’s acquisition of a weapon. The moves in Congress aim to bring the United States closer to Israel’s red line, which is capability.

Richard Stone, the chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said that while the Obama administration insisted that it opposed merely “containing” a nuclear Iran, it was not clear on how it intends to prevent such an outcome. Stone had been present May 21 at a meeting convened by the White House with Jewish leaders in a bid to reassure them that the administration was committed to keeping Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee who has acted as a surrogate for the Obama administration on foreign policy issues, said he was closely involved in discussions of the Iran matter, and that the Obama administration was ready to act if necessary.

The concern, he said, was that Israel would act alone.

“There is tension in Iran at the top levels of leadership with a group of people who want Iran to be attacked, who hope it will be attacked by Israel to enhance Iran’s standing,” Kerry said, according to notes provided by a participant. “If we must act, we should act together.”

Michael Kassen, the new president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, expressed concerns that sequestration—the term for Congress’ mandated fund cutting in the absence of agreement on how to handle the deficit—would adversely affect defense assistance to Israel. Reid is resisting Republican calls to allow a vote that would bypass sequestration for defense spending, with the majority leader making such a vote conditional upon Republicans first working with Democrats to raise revenue sources through taxes.

A number of other speakers also raised concerns related to potential cuts to federal programs.

Rabbi Steve Gutow, the president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the community’s public policy umbrella, spoke of poverty and hunger relief. Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, noted the threats of cuts to social services. And Jerry Silverman, the president of Jewish Federations of North America, also voiced support for sustaining social services, focusing particularly on a program that would enhance assistance for aging Holocaust survivors.

Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) urged the Jewish groups to make the case for raising revenue when they lobby for spending.

“Sequestration will have a devastating effect across the board both on social service, and foreign and defense spending,” Levin said, according to notes from one of the meeting’s participants.

“We need help from the other side of the aisle,” Shaheen added.

This is not the first time in these meetings that Democrats have asked the community to press harder on raising revenue. A number of Jewish groups, including the Reform movement, the National Council of Jewish Women and B’nai B’rith International, advocate for tax increases, while others are less inclined to make the case, seeing it as so partisan that it would alienate Republicans.

The meeting also had some lighthearted moments.

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) thanked those who attended, and in a sly reference to the heavy Jewish representation in the Democratic caucus—13 of 53 members—he added, “I’d especially like to thank my gentile colleagues for being here.”

Editorial Cartoon: The Sacramento Chainsaw Massacre

Republicans’ ‘Starting from zero’ aid proposal startles pro-Israel community

“Starting from zero,” the foreign assistance plan touted by leading Republican candidates at a debate, is getting low marks, and not just from Democrats and the foreign policy community. Pro-Israel activists and fellow Republicans also have concerns.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry introduced the plan during the first foreign policy debate Saturday night, held by CBS and the National Journal at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C. South Carolina is a key early primary state.

“The foreign aid budget in my administration for every country is going to start at zero dollars,” he said. “Zero dollars. And then we’ll have a conversation. Then we’ll have a conversation in this country about whether or not a penny of our taxpayer dollar needs to go into those countries.”

Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, and Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, signed on immediately. Gingrich said the plan made “absolutely perfect sense.” Romney, who has made clear that he disagrees with Perry on much else, in this case said he welcomed the idea, saying “You start everything at zero.”

The proposal of such a radical change raised concerns in the pro-Israel community.

“Hacking away at the international affairs budget of the U.S. government is inefficient and counterproductive, and will not advance U.S. fiscal interests,” said Jason Isaacson, the American Jewish Committee’s director of international affairs. “There’s too little money and it’s too vital to put on the chopping block.”

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee did not have comment, but its former spokesman, Josh Block, weighed in with an e-mail blast to reporters of comments he had provided to Politico.

“When Rick Perry speaks, all I can think is oops,” wrote Block, who is now a consultant for centrist Democrats, but who has been critical of President Obama. Block was referring to Perry’s “oops” in an earlier debate, when he had a memory lapse about the agencies that he had proposed to eliminate.

“Even appearing to question our commitment to Israel certainly falls in that category,” Block said. “Foreign aid is one of the best investments we can make, and it represents 1 percent of our budget. Israel is special, and our aid to them is a direct investment in our own economy.”

At least three-quarters of the $3 billion in military assistance that Israel receives from the United States each year must be spent stateside. Overall, the U.S. spends about $50 billion annually in foreign assistance, less than 1 percent of the overall budget.

Pressed by a viewer, through Twitter, to specify whether “start from zero” included Israel, Perry replied, “Absolutely.”

“Every country would start at zero,” he said. “Obviously, Israel is a special ally. And my bet is that we would be funding them at some substantial level. But it makes sense for everyone to come in at zero and make your case.”

That drew a withering response from the Republican Jewish Coalition, which tweeted, “Hoping @perrytruthteam will brief their man on 10-year Memorandum of Understanding that governs US- #Israel funding levels.”

Israel and the United States signed the 10-year memorandum of understanding in 2007; its long-term assurances are aimed at providing Israel with both financial assurances and political support. The message, said Robert Wexler, a former Democratic congressman from Florida speaking to Jewish reporters on a Democratic National Committee conference call, is that the United States has Israel’s back in the long run.

“Contrast that with the message that the Republican presidential candidates sent on Saturday night, which is that the security relationship between the United States and Israel, like all other relationships, is zeroed out every year,” Wexler said. “And let Israel make the argument why it’s justified, and maybe it will and maybe it won’t be honored. The 2007 memorandum of understanding for President Obama is sacrosanct. For the Republicans, they apparently don’t even reference it.”

In fact, immediately following the debate, Romney’s spokesmen said he would exempt Israel from the policy—but that didn’t do much to assuage pro-Israel concerns. Pro-Israel figures for years have emphasized that they prefer to see Israel wrapped into an overall foreign policy package and not tweaked apart, as some Republicans have proposed.

Gingrich raised pro-Israel eyebrows when he proposed starting Egypt at zero, in part because of rising Muslim-Christian tensions in that country in the wake of the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak. Israel has made clear that it wants U.S. assistance to continue as long as the Egyptian government maintains the peace treaty with Israel.

Richard Parker, the spokesman for the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, a foreign aid advocacy group co-founded by AIPAC and top-heavy with former U.S. generals, said U.S. assistance leverages U.S. influence and tamps down unrest.

“When we go into a country and help them with education and health efforts, you can stabilize those countries,” said Parker, whose group on Monday released a letter from five former secretaries of state—including four Republicans—urging Congress not to cut the foreign aid budget.

That was also a key point for Isaacson, who spoke with JTA from Morocco, where he is on an AJC trip through the region to encourage democracy reforms.

“I’m meeting with government and civil society figures that see us a beacon of democracy, but an uncertain partner,” Isaacson said, referring to the rancorous political debate in the United States over the proper U.S. role overseas. “Signals that the U.S. would retreat are troubling and not in the interests of the United States.”

A Romney adviser who spoke on condition of anonymity said that influence comes only if the United States ensures accountability from recipients. The source referred to the issue that had sparked Perry’s response in the first place: Pakistan’s unreliable role as an ally.

“We have seen a ton of money in places, and zero comes out of it,” the source said, explaining that starting from zero would “force a culture of accountability. The Pakistanis think they have us over a barrel. It’s one thing to have influence, and it’s another to have someone think they’re so indispensable to you they can do what they want.”

That is not a unanimous view among Republicans. The top foreign operations appropriator in the U.S. House of Representatives, Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), has repeatedly made the case for using assistance as a means of influence. Significantly, two of the candidates with deep congressional roots made the same case in the debate Saturday night, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.).

“We can’t be indecisive about whether Pakistan is our friend,” Santorum said. “They must be our friend. And we must engage them as friends, get over the difficulties we have, as we did with Saudi Arabia, with respect to the events of 9/11.”

The most recent debate was not the first time that Republican front-runners called for a change in American foreign aid policies. In a debate last month, Romney suggested that he favored eliminating American foreign aid that goes for humanitarian purposes.

“I happen to think it doesn’t make a lot of sense for us to borrow money from the Chinese to go give to another country for humanitarian aid,” Romney said at the Oct. 18 debate. “We ought to get the Chinese to take care of the people that are taking that borrowed money today.”

Cash-strapped Palestinians cut pay in half for September

The Palestinian Authority will pay only half wages this month, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said on Tuesday, the second time in three months it has taken such a step because of a financial crisis it blames on donors failing to provide promised funds.

Fayyad announced the half pay measure at a cabinet meeting on Tuesday. The Palestinian Authority took the same measure in July. Last month it paid full salaries but said its funding crisis had not been solved.

The Palestinian Authority pays salaries to 150,000 people in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and monthly allowances to another 75,000 people.

A Palestinian official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the aid-dependent authority was facing an unprecedented financial squeeze on funding from Arab states which are failing to meet commitments to provide support.

“We do not know why they are imposing this siege on us,” the official said. In recent years, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been the Palestinians’ most generous Arab donors.

The financial crisis has highlighted the fragility of the PA as President Mahmoud Abbas embarks this month on a diplomatic offensive to secure U.N. endorsement for Palestinian statehood—a step opposed by the United States and Israel.

The Palestinians are hoping to secure an upgrade in their status at a United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York.

The leadership has called for popular protests to add weight to the diplomatic initiative. However, the official suggested turnout at such demonstrations could be hurt by the financial crisis.

“People will be concerned with the financial situation,” the official said.

Reporting by Tom Perry and Ali Sawafta

Senate Democrats to Jews: Help us on budget, defending Obama

When two-fifths of the Democrats in the U.S. Senate met this week in Washington with representatives of Jewish groups, the senators delivered a clear message: If you agree with us, it’s about time you spoke up.

The appeal, delivered at an annual meeting organized by the Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee with the assistance of the National Jewish Democratic Council, was targeted at two disparate issues: Helping to pass a budget and defending President Obama from charges that he is selling Israel down the river.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), both of whom are Jewish, spoke most forcefully, participants reported, linking Jewish requests for funding to the need for Jews to lobby Republicans to help pass the budget.

In an interview after the meeting, Cardin told JTA that it’s not enough to advocate for spending; the Jewish community, he said, needs to help get a budget passed.

“The Jewish community has a direct interest not just with the debt ceiling but in the budget as we attempt to get the deficit under control. Will our priorities be preserved?” he said. “The Jewish community has been very effective in their involvement in the American political scene. My point was these are very consequential times, and they need to focus their efforts in a much more dramatic way. The consequences are much too great.”

The hourlong meeting Wednesday morning attracted 21 senators—a substantial turnout, considering how Congress is mired in negotiations to raise the debt ceiling by Aug. 3 or else face a default and shortfall in government funding. There are 51 Democrats in the Senate, along with two independents who caucus with them.

Not all of the Jews attending the meeting were Democrats.

Josh Protas, the Washington director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella body for Jewish public policy groups, said the takeaway was that Jewish groups need to be more proactive in resolving the budget crisis.

“The Jewish community can be actively talking to their members on both sides of the aisle about the importance of addressing this and not getting to the crisis point we’re close to approaching,” he said.

The remarks by Levin and Cardin were prompted by a presentation by the chairwoman of the Jewish Federations of North America’s board of trustees, Kathy Manning. Manning appealed to the senators to protect a number of funding programs in budget talks, including Medicaid, the program that funds the poor, and Homeland Security grants that help nonprofit institutions implement security precautions.

“We know firsthand the critical impact that the delivery of basic health- and long-term care made possible by Medicaid has made in people’s lives and the tragic consequences should this program be weakened by Congress,” said William Daroff, the Washington director of Jewish Federations of North America.

One of the Jews present who asked not to be identified because of an agreement at the meeting not to describe what others said, characterized the senators’ response as follows: “They basically said: ‘If you want these things, help us pass the budget.’”

While they will aggressively lobby to defend discrete budgetary items, Jewish groups are wary of taking sides in a bitter partisan budget fight. Particularly difficult for Jewish groups is the issue of tax increases to generate revenue.

Indeed, some of the major donors to Jewish organizations that lobby for increased social spending are wealthy Jewish Republicans who chafe at increasing taxes.

At the meeting with the senators, the budget crisis seemed to push Israel and Middle East issues aside for the first time in years. Usually, Israel takes up two-thirds of the meeting, one participant said; this time, most of the talk was about domestic issues.

When it came to Israel, Levin and Cardin said that misimpressions about Obama’s Middle East policies need to be corrected, according to meeting participants. It may be fine to criticize Obama for pressing Israel to negotiate with the Palestinians on the basis of the 1967 lines, they said, but it’s dishonest not to mention that he also called for mutually agreed land swaps and secure borders for Israel.

Levin thanked Howard Kohr, the president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, for agreeing to his request to write to his constituents in Michigan earlier this year to quash an unfounded rumor that the Obama administration was funneling money to Hamas, participants reported. Levin said that such rumors, left unchecked, undercut Obama’s prospects of pushing back against a Palestinian effort to obtain U.N. recognition of statehood in September.

Susie Turnbull, a past vice chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee who now heads Jewish Women International, said it was critical for the Jewish community to push back against misconceptions.

“We as Jews have a responsibility to take up this mantle,” said Turnbull, who had delivered a presentation on how budget cuts would adversely affect women’s health care. “You tamp down rumors and misstatements and misconceptions when they appear.”

Some of the Jews at the meeting resented the pressure from the Senate Democrats to take sides in the budget battle. “I’m not going to get deeper into the debt ceiling game of chicken,” one said.

But with the stakes high, some Jewish groups are wading into the battle.

JCPA’s president, Rabbi Steve Gutow, joined an interfaith appeal on Thursday to pass a budget, saying the two sides need to explore ways to increase revenue.

“We make up what is needed for Medicaid patients, but we can’t do it all,” he said in a conference call with other clergy. “There are other ways to balance our budget, there are other ways to close our debt” other than further cuts, he said.

In addition to representatives from the federations, AIPAC, JCPA and Jewish Women International, top staff and laypeople came from the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, Americans for Peace Now, J Street, the Orthodox Union, Agudath Israel of America, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, NCSJ, American Friends of Lubavitch, and the Reform and Conservative movements.

Don’t count on it

Please don’t run a countdown clock on the debt ceiling. 

For weeks, that’s what Jack Lew, the Obama Administration’s director of the Office of Management and Budget, has been urging the television networks not to do.

You know the kind of clock he means.  It’s what we saw on the cable news channels in April as the absence of a deal on the federal budget raised the prospect of a government shutdown.  To boost ratings, few things beat whipping up a little Perils of Pauline suspense about whether the Washington Monument will be shuttered and Social Security checks will stop.  In 18 hours and 42 minutes, it could be cat food for Granny.  Stay tuned!

Sometimes the clock starts after the event.  “This is the 143d day of the Iranian hostage crisis,” the network anchors said, flipping the pages of the nightly humiliation calendar during the last 444 days of the Carter Administration.  Keith Olbermann did something similar with the number of days since “Mission Accomplished” was declared in the Iraq war.

Does it matter?  In the Carter case, it may well have cemented his 1980 loss to Ronald Reagan.  (Double-digit inflation and gas rationing also didn’t help.)  In the recent wrangling over the budget, the looming deadline mattered, but it’s hard to believe that the deal the negotiators reached was actually affected by the Nielsens stunt.

This time, though, it’s different.  That’s Jack Lew’s point, which has also been made by Democrats like Obama economic advisor ” target=”_blank”>Steny Hoyer (D.-Md.), and by liberal columnists like ” target=”_blank”>Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the

BUDGET: Threat to food stamps lies hidden in Ryan’s plan

With the federal budget battle in full swing, Congress, media pundits and most of the general public have their attention riveted on proposed changes to Medicare and Social Security. But Social Security — dubbed the “third rail” of politics — is likely to remain intact, even in today’s hyper-partisan political climate.

Hiding in the darkness of the pages of the House of Representatives’ proposed 2012 budget is more bad news for our nation’s middle class and poor — a stripping away of federal funding for our safety net food programs. In a cruel twist, at the very same time that the budget and the economy create more jobless Americans, the help we as a nation extend to the jobless and their children is in danger of being slashed.
Congress is poised to consider major cuts in the federal budget that could forever change the landscape of America. Flying under the radar of some very public proposals is a recommendation by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to cut billions of dollars from America’s food stamp program, known as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). These proposed cuts — 20 percent, in fact, amounting to $127 billion through the year 2021 — would dismantle SNAP’s essential structure and impose astonishing limitations on those who receive such help: Recipients must either be working or be enrolled in a job training program, and there would be time limits on how long one could receive assistance. 

According to an April 11, 2011, report issued by the Washington, D.C.-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, implementation of the proposed Ryan budget plan would result in dropping more than 8 million of the 44 million Americans currently enrolled in SNAP from the program. Most of these families, according to the center, are those with children, seniors or people with disabilities, and 93 percent of these households are living below the federal poverty line — $22,350 for a family of four.

With more and more Americans forced to enroll in the program — a nearly 12.1 percent increase from January 2010 to January 2011 alone — it’s absolutely clear that the food stamp program has prevented massive hunger in America. With the proposed changes in the Ryan budget plan, the iconic images of the Great Depression — families moving from place to place seeking work, food and shelter; hundreds of unemployed workers in lines at soup kitchens and desperate mothers begging on street corners — would no longer be the stuff of history. Those pictures would depict our lives, ourselves, today.

Who are the millions who rely on food stamps? They are your friends, your neighbors and your family. They are seniors who found themselves eating cat food because canned tuna was too expensive for them on their fixed incomes. They are formerly middle class — even upper-middle class — parents who lost jobs in this economy and cannot feed their families without the additional support of food stamps.

The America we built after the end of the Great Depression was an America that promised that we — all of us — would ensure that none of us would endure that depth and breadth of hardship again. That time gave birth to the great safety net programs we now take for granted to be there when our country faces a crisis such as the economic downturn we have been experiencing for the past several years.

Cutting the SNAP program would be devastating. Eliminating people unable to find work but still needing to feed their families not only adds insult to injury but also is a “Catch-22” from which these people cannot escape. People turn to food stamps when they lose their jobs — if they could secure employment or replace that lost income, there would be no need for them to apply for SNAP in the first place. The illogic of the work requirement would be laughable if it were not so tragic.

America in 2011 is a place where children are tormented by thoughts that they have driven their families to apply for federal help because they need clothes for school; fathers who once supported their families with ease now find themselves standing on a corner with a cardboard sign asking for work; mothers go without dinner so there will be enough food for their children to have breakfast.

This is not the America we promised ourselves. It is, however, the America in which we are living. Far too many of us are simply unaware of who is hungry and why. If these latest budget proposals are realized, far more of us will be aware of the worst, as we drive by scenes of people waiting for food. Some of us will even be in those very lines, watching as others drive by.

We cannot, and must not, turn a blind eye to what is happening in front of us. Yes, the pundits are right — most Americans will not allow those programs that affect them to be gutted. But we must show both pundits and the rest of America that merely seeking to protect Medicare and Social Security isn’t enough. We know that the challenges to SNAP are challenges to our very survival, and we will not allow our families, our friends and our neighbors to go hungry in America.

Abby J. Leibman is the president and CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger.

BUDGET: Obama’s way: Maintain support for social programs

In the midst of the near shutdown of the federal government, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) launched an attack on Democratic-created safety net programs. He proposed an entirely new budget, calling for the privatization of Medicare and the devolution of Medicaid to the states, where Republican governors would be able to cut health care for the poor at will.

Now, given the general affection for Medicare, in particular, one might assume that this suggestion would be political suicide for Republicans. And, indeed, some Republicans are quite worried that once again, as in 1982, 1995 and 2005, Republicans are taking their electoral victory as a mandate to go after highly popular programs, like Social Security and Medicare, with severe political consequences to follow.

According to Ryan’s plan, the popular Medicare single-payer program would instead give older people vouchers to buy insurance from private companies. So Grandma gets to use her outstanding computer skills to search for the best possible corporate deal and then sit on the phone fighting with an insurance company. Lovely.

Democrats had three grand goals in the last century: Social Security, Medicare and national health insurance. Bolstered by the 1932 and 1934 congressional elections, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act in 1935. After his 1964 landslide, Lyndon Johnson created Medicare (and Medicaid, for the poor) in 1965 as an amendment to the Social Security Act. Together, Social Security and Medicare guaranteed American seniors retirement security and medical coverage. After a more modest victory in 1992, Bill Clinton sought but could not achieve any traction on a version of national health care. It took Barack
Obama, after a big win in 2008, to push through that bill, in 2009. He did not create national health insurance, but what he and the Democrats established was a big step forward.

While conservatives fought these programs tooth and nail, they could not destroy them once they were in place. Now comes Ryan’s plan, which is a twofer. It would eliminate Obama’s health care plan and turn Medicare into a privatized system.

Democrats are excited by what they see as Ryan’s overreach, and they are itching for a counterattack. Perhaps they imagine television commercials featuring hard-pressed, especially older, Americans comparing their own situations to the line in Ryan’s report where he hopes “to ensure that America’s safety net does not become a hammock that lulls able-bodied citizens into lives of complacency and dependency.” With one out of six Americans on Medicaid (more than 50 million people), and with more than 45 million Medicare recipients, this is, to say the least, ill-advised language. Congressional Republicans are even attacking AARP, one of the nation’s most powerful interest groups, for challenging these priorities.

Democrats are thrilled Republicans are having to take a position on the Ryan budget. House Republicans endorsed the Ryan plan on April 15, with just four Republicans voting against it. No House Democrats crossed over.

But it’s worth noting that while the politics of Medicare favors Democrats, the math is not so simple. Medicare is a government-run program that provides health care and enjoys vast public approval. Older voters express extremely positive feelings about Medicare and Social Security. Seniors are the most active voters. So what did they do in 2010? They went out and helped Republicans take over the House of Representatives, putting in place the current attempt to privatize Medicare. And seniors continue to constitute the least favorable bloc of voters for the Obama administration. 

Since the end of the New Deal, Democrats have had to learn the painful lesson that people can have all sorts of logical reasons to support Democratic proposals and candidates and then, at the end of the day, go out and vote Republican. They can even believe fervently in Medicare and Social Security while voting for candidates whose deepest political dream is to turn both of them over to the tender mercies of the insurance and banking industries. To win those votes, Democrats must clearly, confidently, decisively and dramatically demonstrate how each program works, and show what would be irretrievably lost if they were privatized. These truths are not self-evident. And Democrats need to be wary that to focus solely on Ryan’s Medicare proposal will allow his other ideas, such as redirecting tax burdens from the wealthy to the middle class, to slip by.

Republicans have been working the old folks since the 2008 campaign. The more Obama drew the support of younger voters, the more the Republicans refined their pitch toward seniors. When Obama launched his health care plan, he included savings from Medicare that would come out of the companies making profits in the program. Republicans told seniors that Obamacare would cut their Medicare and create “death panels” or, more colorfully, pull the plug on Grandma. They could not actually point to a provision in the health care bill that did this, but the insinuation worked anyway. And the lack of trust that older voters had in Obama and the Democrats made this distortion easy to pull off.

Ryan now is going to say he wants to save Medicare from the clutches of the government. This argument will appeal to those voters who are not even clear, according to polls, that Medicare is a government program now.

It might be useful to point out that when the Republicans held all three branches of government, they passed an unfunded prescription drug plan that not only fattened corporate wallets but also mandated that Medicare could not use its massive buying power to lower drug prices.

How different would the politics of Medicare have been if only Joe Lieberman hadn’t been such a jerk? During the final bleak days of the health care bill negotiations, a proposal was offered to allow Americans to buy into Medicare at age 55. An ABC News Washington Post poll in 2009 showed it drawing 2-1 support. But Sen. Joe Leiberman, who had previously supported the idea, killed it because, he reported, a liberal congressman, Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), spoke highly of it as a step toward a single-payer option. Had it passed, a whole new bloc of voters would have been brought into the system as paying customers, and it would have been harder than ever to break it up. Leiberman could have been a hero by providing the last vote needed to break a filibuster and open the doors of Medicare to millions more.

With all this in mind, I braced myself to be crushingly disappointed and demoralized by President Obama’s April 13 speech on the budget. I expected him to split the loaf, cleave toward the Republican side, and make pre-emptive concessions. I was sure he would give in to the punditry’s conventional wisdom that there is no worthy vision to challenge the Republican view. I was well-prepared to sadly lament this lost opportunity to make the case for a more just, fairer America.

Instead, the president knocked it out of the park. He not only defended Medicare and swore to protect it, but he set out the profound contrast between the Republican vision as embodied in the Ryan plan, and a more compassionate and thoughtful America as seen on his side of aisle. On this biggest of questions, which will define politics for this entire re-election period, Obama finally moved off the sidelines and took a stand. And he did it with some flair, highlighting the absurdity of throwing the health of our seniors into the hands of corporations and the foolishness of cutting investments in order to maintain tax cuts for the top 1 percent.

As we look back on the House vote on the Ryan plan, there is one more reason for Republicans to wish that that vote had never come before them. A politically skilled president has moved, at least for the moment, into the kind of stance that his role model, Ronald Reagan, utilized almost as his second nature — to contest the basic foundation of the political debate.

For too long, Democrats have tried to sell voters on their smart policy ideas. They have focused on what they would do. But nobody really cares about all these smart ideas. They really hear you when you say why you want to do things. It’s not what’s in your brain that gets through to people; it’s what’s in your heart. In the days to come, President Obama will be well served to consult his own speech when the details of policy seem about to overwhelm what the heart is saying.

Now that both teams are playing from their hearts, it should be a heck of an election year.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is chair of the Division of Politics, Administration and Justice at California State University, Fullerton.

BUDGET: Ryan’s way: Stop government excess

We pretend. And Paul Ryan says, get real.

Does anyone dare ask how the government can spend ever more on, say, education, health and poverty, when schools decline anyway, health care becomes more chaotic, and the dependent class grows exponentially … and then liberals predictably claim the only problem is we’re not spending enough? 

What’s wrong with this picture?

We now know, through the late Milton Friedman, the Nobel laureate economist, and other economists, that government intervention exacerbates the otherwise largely self-correcting, mild economic cycle. Yet, ever since the founding of the Federal Reserve, we’ve opted for government to continue to make things worse, as it did with the recent economic disintegration, via its sponsored monstrosities — especially Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, in collusion with Wall Street. Just as the government’s excess credit expansion helped set the stage for the Great Depression, and its contraction of the money supply helped prolong it, ironically it’s the alphabet of government agencies founded by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in response to that Depression era that have slowed our once-powerful economic engine — the same free market celebrated by President Obama in his speech on April 13.

But President Obama doesn’t get it. We pay for the programs he wants not by government fiat, but by a growing economy, which he would suppress. Government is largely mischievous, and its calamitous offenses are cyclically exploited to justify cures (greater, yet more complex regulation) that surely are worse than the disease (government condoned, subsidized credit fraud). 

When FDR created Social Security, it was a tiny tax on a small base payroll. Over the years, the base payroll (on which the tax is based) and the tax rate have grown exponentially, but the distribution of benefits grew even faster still, as politicians pandered for high-turnout senior voters. And, for the successive preretirement generations, which morphed into café latte aficionados on 26 percent credit card debt, savings rates have declined precipitously. In the old days, people saved for their senior years, and for the proverbial rainy day. Paradoxically, as life spans lengthened, prolonged by new, costly medical technologies, we have actually discouraged needed saving and broadened unfunded entitlements; Social Security and Medicare today comprise the mother and stepmother of all Ponzi schemes, borrowing heavily from future generations to pay for people who want to believe their relatively modest payroll deductions somehow have financed — for them and unforeseen octogenarians-to-centenarians — forever-indexed pensions and open-ended, if not open-heart, surgery. 

Today, large banks — fed by the government’s long-term growth of the money supply — continue, in our credit-card-fed fantasy world, to lend to people money they cannot afford to borrow. Save money for your kid’s college? Why? We have a dysfunctional student loan program for you, which, incidentally, raises the demand curve for “college” so high, that tuition rates have become prohibitive, because university bureaucrats and faculty earn, in effect, government-subsidized salaries. They “teach” students who will be graduated with unsustainable student debt and face limited job opportunities. Either the graduates are in hock to the future or we taxpayers pick up the pieces.

Is it any wonder that the Ivory Tower thinks Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is a crackpot, and that President Obama chose a university venue for last week’s talk? We’re not borrowing, as Obama claims, to “invest in people” or “bridges.” For the last couple of years, he has been borrowing from China to give money to state and local government to pay members of the government unions who helped elect him. Forget the federal debt we inevitably must pay; consider that today, interest payments on government debt, at all levels, already cuts deeply into vital services. 

Unemployment insurance payments were supposed to be temporary. Over the years, as union power has mandated prevailing wages, and government has extended these payments, the American work ethic is long gone. Seemingly long ago, when times were tough, the breadwinner accepted, at least temporarily, a lower-paying job, and society benefited from that productivity. Now, we subsidize people who choose to seek only a particular job — and under the misconception (shared by ignorant politicians) that “workers” have paid for their unemployment insurance, when it is actually funded entirely by the employer, and then extended with government-borrowed money.

If we are giving food stamps to a vast and growing segment of the American population, many of whom are truly needy, is it unreasonable to ask why economic growth is still lacking? History, not mythology, shows the greatest alleviation of poverty came, more than a century ago, when government taxed and regulated little, amid an unprecedented creation of wealth, even as the United States absorbed large numbers of immigrants. 

The solution, Obama now tells us, is to tax the privileged. But, as we know, he defines the line that separates the wealthy as ever lower, while the policies of liberalism produce a contraction of the middle class, separated from the larger (and growing) number of alienated Americans who simply pay no income taxes at all and, naturally and readily, as the entitlement class then vote reliably for the enabling politicians. That is, they vote for the usual suspects, who, in turn, get campaign money from Big Business interests, which seek the crony (and phony) capitalism that Ryan, who favors a real entrepreneurial free market, would eliminate.

And what of the hidden, postponed tax of inflation? Through past policies — including those of George W. Bush and, particularly, Obama — we are headed into an economic abyss that may threaten the social fabric of our increasingly fragile nation. The wild spending spree funded by massive borrowing has led to the Federal Reserve Board’s electronic equivalent of printing money, which makes economic calculation and planning difficult, then nearly obsolete. And why should anyone save, if money is moving toward becoming worthless? Instant gratification is nothing more than a repudiation of the future, which, absent the vision of Ryan, we will sacrifice.

There is no ambiguity here. Such increases in the supply of money can produce rapid, even geometric increases in the prices of goods and services. Here is the dirty little secret that the well-paid professional anti-poverty consultants do not tell you: The staples of life — food, energy, necessities — they go up, and a lot.  The rich make do, but the poorest, for whom Obama professes concern, are hit hardest. 

And this debt preoccupation is why Ryan is the compassionate one. He wants also to do away with corporate welfare, the very bogeyman against which the liberals crusade. But when it comes to votes in Congress — the liberals have been in the majority for nearly all the years of the last half century and more — they have supported the special interests, including, for example, agri-business, which we taxpayers pay to grow less, to keep food prices high and, yes, also including Wall Street, which, in fact, mostly favored Obama. Ryan would end those absurd business subsidies.

We live in a politically correct society that is over the top — on regulation, taxation, litigation. Compare us, the once proud leader in capitalism, to the still low, by our standards, but upwardly mobile, emerging markets. What do you think it’s like for the aspiring American entrepreneur when politicians like Henry Waxman, who knows nothing about economics or business, devise regulations that put you out of business, or keep you from creating a business? What about the people who lose jobs, or don’t have the chance to get them?

Just add them to the growing ranks of food stamp recipients. That’s easier than finding out why they are jobless, or looking into fraud among able-bodied, educated food stamp recipients.

I remember, a couple of decades ago, a doctor urging my dying mother to pursue a dubious treatment. “It’s free,” he argued to her. “No,” she said. “Someone is paying. The taxpayers.” But she was from another era. She arrived, legally, a Jewish immigrant from Poland; strangely, oddly, there was no bilingual-Polish program. Somehow, she learned English, attended night school and became a citizen. And millions did the same, without taxpayer-funded entitlements, now provided even to people here illegally. Even before the Depression, she did something weird. With meager earnings in the garment district, she saved for the future. When she married, her husband, my father, worked two shifts, then sold door-to-door at night. If he couldn’t get a job, he offered to work for less, until things got better, the same way, in recent years, landlords have lowered rent, and stores have discounted merchandise.  But we as a society encourage unproductivity and inefficiency

Surely, we can do better with a revamped Medicare, so that Uncle Sam is not saddled with paying for every medical test under the sun, contingent on the whims of trial lawyers for whom the Democratic Party fronts. And why not give states the flexibility to administer Medicaid? We call this federalism; it is grounded in the U.S. Constitution, and it means we can hold our state legislators accountable for screw-ups, not amorphous “Washington.” The Ryan plan for Medicare is similar to President Clinton’s replacement of federal welfare with bloc grants to the states, which saved money by incentivizing states to make welfare more efficient.

Ryan has insight into all of this. You may not completely agree with him, but he is the only guy willing to say, stop the shell

Arnold Steinberg is a political strategist, analyst and author.

Jewish groups condemn U.S. House’s 2012 budget proposal

Jewish groups and a key Jewish lawmaker condemned the U.S. House of Representative’s budget proposal for 2012, saying it will hurt the Americans most in need.

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs said in a statement released Wednesday that the Republican-backed budget proposal unveiled the previous day, which slashes nearly $6 trillion from federal spending over the next 10 years, “relies on cuts which will be harmful to many of those in America who are most in need.”

“We are concerned that a singular focus on deficit reduction means our families, those looking for work and others who are held up by our national social safety net will be neglected,” said JCPA President Rabbi Steve Gutow.

B’nai B’rith International said in a statement Wednesday that the organization is “deeply troubled” by the budget proposal, saying it would damage Medicaid and Medicare.

“The proposed budget does not control health costs or encourage efficiencies in the broader health care system; it simply relies on dramatic cuts, with a staggering impact on the elderly,” the group said. “By making Medicaid a block grant while creating a decreasingly valuable Medicare voucher, this bill would deal a devastating double-blow to older adults as well as the disabled.”

Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the proposal, which would slash the international affairs budget by 40 percent, sets “a new standard for recklessness and irresponsibility.”

“This shortsighted plan is a slap in the face to our senior military leadership, which has argued time and again that diplomacy and development are key pillars of U.S. national security,” Berman said in a statement. The cuts “would also severely curtail U.S. efforts to promote human rights, democracy and free markets—which will lead to more instability, and ultimately, greater costs for U.S. taxpayers.”

A budget for fiscal year 2011 was never passed. The government is facing a shutdown Friday when the latest resolution to keep it running expires Friday.

The Colbert Report’s Government Shutdown Menorah [VIDEO]

Monday, April 4, 2011

Thursday, March 31, 2011


N.Y. budget includes tuition grants for rabbinic students

New York’s state budget includes tuition grants for college students attending some private religious institutions, including Orthodox rabbinical schools.

The money is available as part of the state’s Tuition Assistance Program, under which any theological student who meets certain criteria, including attending a three-year program at a tax-exempt institution based in New York, can be eligible for the grants.

The institution also must be eligible under federal law for Pell grants for undergraduate study; the program does not exclude students studying for the rabbinate.

Some 5,000 men who attend dozens of Orthodox rabbinical schools in New York stand to benefit, according to The New York Times, but most rabbinic seminaries accept only students who have completed college.

Some New York State lawmakers have tried for the last 10 years to eliminate the program’s ban on state tuition assistance for college students who attend yeshivas that are not state-chartered, according to the Times.

Opponents say the provision violates the constitutional provision of separation of church and state.

Bill Boyarsky: State budget crisis calls for action

If there was ever a time for Jewish parents to fight for Los Angeles public schools, this is it.

Legislators can’t agree on Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to have a special election to extend taxes scheduled to expire this year. “If we don’t get these tax extensions, it’s a dire emergency,” said Steve Zimmer, the Los Angeles school board member who represents the Westside and the West San Fernando Valley. Layoff notices have already been sent to more than 7,000 Los Angeles Unified School District teachers. If the voters don’t approve the tax extensions, those notices will, for the most part, be translated into firings.

This would be a devastating blow to Jewish families who have been engaged for many months in a campaign to persuade parents to send their kids to public schools. They have hosted parental meetings in their homes, arranged for school visits and formed support groups, all in the interest of persuading skeptical mothers and fathers that their children can receive a high-quality education in Los Angeles public schools and that these schools are safe.

Now, with the budget crisis, parents impressed by faculty during school visits might one day learn those teachers have been fired. 

“Reinvesting in public schools, particularly on the Westside and the West Valley, is still a fragile choice, still a leap of faith,” Zimmer told me. “People are positive, but it is fragile. So when you add the [budget] uncertainty, it makes the situation more precarious.”

Some people aren’t sitting back and taking it. 

At the Westside’s Temple Isaiah, a center for the back-to-public school movement, Rabbi Dara Frimmer told me congregants are learning the complex politics of the Sacramento budget mess and what will happen if Gov. Brown’s proposed tax extensions are not approved.

At the same time, they are examining the Los Angeles school district budget. This is a great idea. Get some smart accountants, tough lawyers and sophisticated political activists to take that budget apart. When it is time to cut, we shouldn’t accept the word of the school board or administrators at face value.

Although she is concerned about the cuts, Rabbi Frimmer said, “this only intensifies our commitment to public education — not just Jewish middle-class parents but all parents.”

At Hamilton High School, students, inspired by the young people of Egypt and Tunisia, used Facebook and e-mail to create a protest network after hearing of the layoff notices, which would hit their school hard. Among the many targeted cuts that would affect the school, major district-wide cuts are focusing on music programs, and Hamilton’s renowned Music Academy falls into that category. Students began work on a Friday and by Monday had 600 students at a rally and had persuaded — with about 100 e-mails — Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez to visit the campus. He wrote a terrific, supportive column. Continuing to work through the week, they organized a bigger rally outside the school on South Robertson Boulevard last Friday morning.

This is another great idea. The L. A. school district is traditionally afraid of student activism, and administrators, fearful of getting in trouble, tend to put it down, but, as others have found, it’s hard to put down a social network.

Still, political organizing hasn’t been easy, as this Hamilton dad wrote me:

“Several kids, including our son, were designated to speak to the school board on Tuesday. They were told to be there at 9 a.m. to ‘sign in.’ They were there by 8:20, signed in and were told to return at noon for the 1 p.m. meeting. They did as they were told. Sometime after they got back, they were told that they hadn’t filled out the necessary forms — forms that no one had mentioned to them before. As a result, they wouldn’t be allowed to speak. They missed a day of school, didn’t get to speak, but … they learned a lesson (although I’m not quite sure what it is) about dealing with the district bureaucracy.”

If the kids have the guts for a worthy fight, the adult Jewish community should, too.

Sure, it’s easy to ignore Sacramento. The budget crisis is confusing, ugly and messy. It’s more fun to rub shoulders with the glitterati at a presidential fundraiser or hear some well-known journalist or book author at another Westside political or cultural event for donors. No doubt about it, it’s more interesting to talk about Israel, Egypt or maybe even the Afghanistan war than to immerse yourselves in the tortuous details of the Sacramento legislative mill.

But we all have to turn our attention to Sacramento with e-mails, faxes and phone calls. If these lawmakers, terrified of losing, get enough static from constituents, they’ll listen. Republicans should tell those stubborn GOP legislators to drop their opposition to letting the people vote on taxes. Democrats can tell liberal legislators to ignore large contributions from public employee unions who are against the governor’s plan. They don’t understand, as Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton wrote, that Brown “is just the type to turn on everyone if negotiations blow up. He’d probably propose an all-cuts budget that would cripple schools, eliminate many thousands of teacher jobs …”

Skelton knows Brown well. So do I. And it’s clear that time is running out for our public schools. As Jews, who value education more than most, it’s our obligation to take the lead in saving them. 

Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for The Jewish Journal, Truthdig and LA Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).

Beautiful bridal showers and receptions on a budget

Even if real life affects the bottom line of your bridal budget, you can still make your shower or brunch reception the first-class affair of your dreams.

Event manager Renata Burian-Ferguson and sommelier Paul Bologna at the Desert Springs JW Marriott Resort & Spa in posh Palm Desert share a few surprisingly simple ideas designed to make a memorable — and affordable — event spent with family and friends.

Tee Off for Teatime

Burian-Ferguson says English garden-style teas are never out of fashion, and there are some beautiful, modern ways to update the popular bridal shower theme simply by using hot color schemes (greens, blues and browns), some updated cocktails and creative edibles.

• Tea Forté not only makes fantastic artisanal teas but also tea-drinking accessories that guests can take home with them.
• Because sun protection is a must, a crafty way to get guests interacting and shaded is by creating a hat-making station, where they can use ribbons, feathers, flowers and other notions to dress up basic hats. The makings of this group fashion statement are as accessible and affordable as neighborhood crafts stores, such as Michaels.
• Make it a garden party, literally. Garnish the season’s freshest vodka and gin drinks with edible flowers and leaves.
• For guests not ready for liquor-based cocktails early in the day, you can serve fresh-squeezed health boosters with carrot, pomegranate, guava and wheatgrass juices.
• Sushi for breakfast? Yes. Use slices and rectangular cubes of fruit to dress up blocks of sushi rice for an edible that’s light, sweet and refreshing.

Consider dressing up the tea party with a golf theme:

• Transform unused golf clubs and fresh flowers into eye-catching centerpieces.
• Party favors can be double-entendres. For example, a crystal wine-bottle stopper bears a striking resemblance to a golf ball on a tee.
• Serve foods inspired by the hearty delicacies of such golf destinations as Scotland and Ireland: Try scones, potato cakes, oatmeal crème brulee and smoked salmon in bite-size portions.

Happy-Hour Shower

Bologna notes that wine tastings built around themes of favorite genres of wine (Californian, Italian, German) have become popular for weddings staged at the hotel. However, he notes that with a little research, you can achieve the same kind of “gee whiz” factor anywhere with a little bit of planning and a commitment to a favorite region or style of wine. When done right, the get-together can also be educational.

Here are some of Bologna’s suggestions for a successful sipping session:

• Pick five or six wines that fit both the season and favorite genre of wine, and order them by price or by intensity.
• Explain that there are phases of a sip:

1. Attack: first notes that hit the tongue
2. Midpalate: the fruits, woods and other nuances that spread across the tongue over several seconds.
3. Finish: the notes of the wine that linger at the end of the sip.

• Explain to your guests that terroir is a French descriptor that indicates a wine’s geographical origin, as the wine takes on the unique characteristics of the soil in different locations. A Cabernet from Napa, for example, will be a very different from a Cabernet from Paso Robles.
• Visit a respected cheese shop or deli to provide cheeses that will pair with the various wines you select for your evening.
• Invest in fresh honeys, jams and nuts to serve with cheeses and quality crackers.

Well-Received Reception

Burian-Ferguson notes that although the sky’s the limit when it comes to wedding planning at her property,  many of the ideas are as accessible as your neighborhood gourmet food market, housewares store and farmers market.

• Olive bar: Feature different types of fresh and cured olives in giant martini glasses.
• Pasta bar: Offer the classics, plus gnocchi (potato dumplings),  as well as toppings and sauces that can be mixed and matched to satisfy vegetarian and omnivore alike.
• Heirloom tomato bar: Include balsamic vinegar, olive oil and burrata cheese.
• Cheese table: Include dried fruits, honey and port, sherry and liqueurs.
• Cocktails: In a bowl or other oversize vessel, serve sangria, limoncello lemonade or mojitos.
• Fruit-infused water: Serve in pitchers or dispensers — very little effort for a luxurious, summery touch that quenches the thirst on a hot afternoon.