Jewish Silence on Tax Plan Deafening


Washington is buzzing about the Bush administration’s huge
new tax cut proposal, but the silence from Jewish groups is deafening — and
revealing.

Many activists believe big, new cuts that don’t immediately
stimulate the faltering economy will have a devastating impact on government
funding for health and human services, including money for thousands of Jewish
social service agencies.

But you’d never know it by their uncharacteristic silence as
Congress takes up the Bush administration tax cuts. The reasons for that
reticence are similar to the reasons why so many Democrats will swallow their
misgivings and vote for cuts they believe will hurt the country’s neediest
citizens.

Ironically, the strongest opposition to the idea of big tax
cuts may be coming from conservative Republicans, who abhor deficits almost as
much as they hate big government.

The Democrats aren’t exactly profiles in courage as the tax
debate opens. Last week, a Democratic congressman put it bluntly, saying his
party is “schizophrenic” on the issue of taxes. “We just can’t find the
language for telling the people that big tax cuts right now are not a good
idea.”

The congressman was being generous. Mostly, Democratic
lawmakers live in mortal fear of the “tax-and-spend” label that Republicans have
learned to wield with remarkable effectiveness.

Many Democrats believe that the administration’s 10-year,
$674 billion tax cut, which includes the elimination of taxes on dividends,
will just heap new red ink onto the deficit, not stimulate the economy. They
worry that the new cuts come at the worst possible time, with a looming war in Iraq,
soaring homeland security costs, an ongoing economic slowdown and the
still-mounting impact of the 2001 tax cuts, which the Bush administration now
wants to accelerate as part of its stimulus package.

Big tax cuts will make it harder to respond to new
challenges, they fret. And they fear that if the tax cuts don’t produce a jump
start for the economy, a wildly out-of-balance budget will quickly force
wholesale cuts in health and human service programs, the vulnerable underbelly
of the federal budget.

However, few Democrats are willing to make these arguments
in public. Instead, they are debating details: who gets the biggest pieces of
the pie, the differences between eliminating taxes on dividends and giving
income-tax rebates.

Scared of being called pro-tax, the Democrats have already
come up with their own sizeable tax cut proposal that they say will favor
working Americans. There are significant differences between the Republican and
Democratic plans, and they should be debated. But what should also be debated
is the wisdom of any tax cut at all. Instead, all the nation is getting is
Republican tax policy — and Republican lite.

The silence is even more profound in the Jewish community.

Like many Democrats, numerous Jewish organizational
professionals are deeply worried about the cumulative human impact of the
Bush-era tax cuts on an already frayed social safety net. Jewish agencies that
depend on federal grants to provide services could face big cuts at a time when
philanthropy is down and demand for services up. At the same time, more than 30
states may have to cut social service spending because of their own budget
crises, a major misery multiplier.

In addition, many Jewish leaders fear that a second round of
tax cuts will be driven by an anti-government ideological agenda, not
economics; new tax cuts may be calculated to create exactly the kind of
budgetary pressure that will make new program reductions inevitable.

Only the Reform movement is publicly opposing new tax cuts;
only a few Jewish groups have even challenged the details of the Bush proposal.

“We don’t take positions on tax cuts,” said representatives
of almost a half-dozen Jewish groups this week — organizations that usually
take positions on everything from auto fuel efficiency to cloning.

The reasons for that shyness are varied. Some Jewish leaders
fear losing precious political access with the administration and the
Republican Congress; some are reluctant to go against the top domestic priority
of a president who has stood by Israel during a terrible year.

An even bigger factor may be internal politics. Jewish
groups may be restrained from participating in the tax debate by big donors who
stand to benefit greatly from the administration plan.

Whatever the reason, Jewish groups that traditionally fight
for social justice and compassionate government programs are opting out of a
debate that will have a huge impact on the government’s ability to provide
those things for years to come.

Jewish groups may chip around the edges by focusing on the
relative fairness of various tax plans, but there will be almost no public
discussion of the real questions of the day: is this a good time for any
sizable tax cut or will the stimulus package just produce new debt and new
pressure to cut vulnerable programs?

The answers are not simple, but they will not be arrived at
through a conspiracy of silence.