The tectonic plates of power underneath the nation’s capital are radically shifting in the wake of the 2010 midterm elections. Everyone in Washington — from the White House to industry associations to public interest groups and more — is still assessing the fate of the issues they care about in light of the new lay of the land, and the Jewish community is no exception. The good news is, for many of the issues that we care about, the shift from one-party rule to divided government offers opportunities, albeit with challenges, too.
The realities of divided government demand that the president and congressional leaders in both parties forge a centrist agenda; an agenda that veers to the liberal left won’t pass the House, while a push to the hard right will be defeated in the Senate or by presidential veto. In such an environment, a carefully crafted Jewish community agenda can succeed.
On the foreign policy front congressional support for a strong and secure Israel is widely bipartisan. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who will be the new chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, is staunchly pro-Israel, not to mention the new House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor (R-Va.), and a host of others. The same can be said of returning Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry (D-Mass.). As much as Congress can shape foreign policy, it will be in support of Israel.
But it is on the domestic front where Congress has more sway and President Obama, in his post-election news conference, has already identified education reform and energy independence as two areas where he anticipates working with Republicans. And some key Republicans seem to agree.
There is no bigger challenge to the American Jewish community in 2010 than Jewish continuity, and there is no means of securing that continuity that has been proven more successful than Jewish day school education. At the same time, the current “Great Recession” has brought an already strained day-school funding system to the breaking point, with some schools closing and some parents transferring their children to public schools for no reason other than cost.
Upon entering office, President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan committed themselves to an education reform agenda intended to bring excellence to all American classrooms. They created a multibillion-dollar “Race to the Top” fund, which has already spurred new school reform initiatives in scores of states.
The Jewish community must engage the administration and congressional leaders to ensure that while they revise federal programs to improve public education, they do not leave our schools and students behind. At a minimum, states seeking Race to the Top funds should have to demonstrate they are providing nonpublic schools and their students with the support and services they are entitled to by law — including support for low-income students, special-ed for learning-disabled students and transportation, textbooks and technology hardware for all students.
Achieving energy independence is a goal the entire Jewish community has long supported. Reducing U.S. dependence on Arab oil can only benefit the U.S.-Israel relationship, and U.S. national security; cutting greenhouse gas emissions is good for the environment; and a drive for greater energy efficiency can create new jobs and industries.
While ambitious “cap and trade” energy legislation remains too controversial, more modest legislation that brings us closer to energy independence is achievable in the new Congress and must be a communal priority.
As the nonprofit sector continues to struggle with the reduced donations and greater demands for service the recession has generated, Washington could aid the nonprofit world by helping us slash our energy costs. The Jewish community should press more aggressively for a new federal grant program to subsidize the retrofitting of nonprofit-owned buildings. This would deliver significant and immediate support to our synagogues, schools, JCCs and other facilities.
The biggest challenge that the Jewish community — including the Orthodox segment — will confront is the new Republican majority’s drive to cut the federal budget. This will certainly entail slashing the budgets of many social welfare programs administered by our community’s agencies. But in the face of overwhelming public sentiment to rein in runaway federal deficits, we must devise a strategy that is smarter — and more likely to succeed — than flat-out opposition to any budget cuts.
While Republicans are committed to budget cutting they also support empowering the private sector through tax cuts and empowering social service programs provided by faith-based and other non-governmental agencies. These approaches can be tailored to dovetail with our communal institutions, and we should proactively engage leading Republicans and Democrats in supporting this approach.
The events of recent days remind officeholders to never take anything for granted, especially the often-intoxicating possession of power. Last week’s wave reversing the 2008 elections outcome should impress upon lawmakers the need to work together for the common good over partisan interest and to accept consensus and compromise over rancor and polarization. The reshuffling of the political deck has reasserted this message; the only certainty is that things will soon shift again. Those who wish to work for the common good must work together or achieve nothing.
Nathan J. Diament is director of public policy Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.