A Jewish Agenda and a Narrow Government

Posted on November 17, 2000 In Press Releases

As the dust settles on the 2000 political battleground, a few realities are clear. The new president, whoever he is, faces a closely divided Congress with the Republicans barely in control, and he cannot claim a mandate for the bolder aspects of his agenda. The narrow margin of victory and apportionment of congressional power ensures that the only measures that will be enacted legislatively will be those that garner centrist, bipartisan support.

With this reality, the American Jewish community’s agenda for the 107th Congress must be carefully considered and expertly executed if it is to be translated from rhetoric to reality. A Jewish agenda that relies solely on the alliance with one party is doomed to fail. So let us consider what a bipartisan American Jewish agenda might look like.

Thankfully, support for a strong and secure Israel has enjoyed bipartisan support for decades. This could be no more critical than right now, as Israel faces the most hostile Arab and international community than it has in years. The crisis of the past weeks already has garnered overwhelmingly bipartisan resolutions in support of Israel’s security, and we must continue to work with Republicans and Democrats to ensure this critical support continues for the sake of the Jewish state.

On the domestic front, a bipartisan Jewish agenda might begin with a measure that has languished in recent years — the Workplace Religious Freedom Act. This measure will prod private sector employers to accommodate the religious needs of their employees, such as time off for religious holidays and the wearing of religious garb, to the benefit of all religious Americans. It has been endorsed by a wide array of religious organizations and has enjoyed bipartisan sponsorship in both houses of Congress.

The attention and effort of religious activists was diverted from this measure in recent years by securing the passage of the Religious Land Use legislation last year. Now it is time to roll up our sleeves and get WRFA passed.

Many candidates pledged in recent weeks to “fight for America’s families” and will be looking for ways to realize that commitment. As a family-oriented community, American Jews should play a part in shaping a bipartisan family-friendly agenda.

The contours of such an agenda should include the following aspects:

First, the elimination of the tax code’s marriage penalty. While Republicans and Democrats split last year over how exactly to remedy this inequity — one which costs 25 million couples an average of $1,500 extra in taxes based solely on their marital status — they agreed on the need to eliminate it and ensure that our tax code does not penalize couples for electing to marry.

A second important component of a pro-family agenda is an increased commitment to child care. A bipartisan approach to this issue will ensure that both dual-career couples as well as couples with one stay-at-home parent will receive greater support through tax credits and subsidized programs for the child-care decisions they make.

Polls in recent years consistently show that a majority of women would opt to stay home to raise young children if they could afford to do so. At the same time, parents who use child-care centers outside the home seek assurances that they are trusting their children to safe and responsible providers. The Jewish community should play a critical role in promoting initiatives consistent with these needs.

Third, as the firestorm over the recent Federal Trade Commission report revealed, many parents feel they are engaged in a hopeless struggle to raise “PG kids in an R-rated world.” The FTC found that Hollywood studios were intentionally marketing age-inappropriate movies to preteens, and the same is thought to be the case with regard to record and video game companies. Senate hearings demonstrated bipartisan outrage at the media companies for this practice and warned them to clean up their act or face regulatory sanctions.

The American Jewish community can retain its respect for the freedom of speech while simultaneously working in Congress and the marketplace to protect our children from being exposed to media products filled with violence and vulgarity.

Along with fighting for families, concern over education and the need to improve our schools was a prominent theme in the campaign season. While some proposals such as vouchers or uniform national standards are polarizing and partisan, it is possible to construct a productive bipartisan education agenda as well. Its core component would be a drive to recruit new and highly qualified teachers into our schools.

Many teachers, in public and private schools, are nearing retirement age. An initiative to forgive (or at least make deductible) the educational loans of those entering the teaching profession — whether they opt to teach in a public, private or parochial school — will attract new and better teachers to all our schools. This would be a simple but achievable step toward improving the state of education in America.

Finally, a rare point of agreement between Al Gore and George W. Bush in the campaign was with regard to increasing the role of faith-based organizations in the provision of social services. Both candidates recognized the power of faith to change the lives of the needy and to motivate people to help those in need effectively and efficiently.

Thus, a carefully crafted “charitable choice” initiative — one that allows faith-based entities to receive government funding for their programs but ensures that no needy person is subjected to religious coercion — should enjoy bipartisan and Jewish communal support.

A happy consequence of this election outcome may accrue to our community and our government. By focusing on a consensus agenda such as that outlined here, we learn how to work together and diminish the politics of polarization. Too often we make perfect the enemy of the good and demonize those who would engage in compromise. America’s voters are trying to force everyone to get along or get nothing; the Jewish community must choose which it prefers under our new government.

Nathan Diament is director of the Institute for Public Affairs of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.