by Eric Hal Schwartz
In December, an interfaith group of clergy took a bus ride to visit Congress. The mixed Christian, Jewish and Muslim faith leaders wanted to convince lawmakers to remember to care for the poor and others in need as they raced to negotiate a budget before the “fiscal cliff” at the end of the year that would bring raised taxes and drastically slashed government programs – including several that many Americans needed to survive.
It came down to the wire and then some, with a temporary compromise coming into play at the last minute before the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 was passed by both houses of Congress and signed into law by President Obama on Jan. 3.
“I am very happy that an agreement was finally made,” said Rabbi Esther Lederman of Temple Micah, one of the clergy who trekked up Capitol Hill to speak to congressional leaders as part of Bend the Arc Jewish Action.
Neither political party got everything they wanted in the deal. The budget debate was broadly over how much of the debt crisis could be resolved by tax increases versus program budget cuts, with Democrats pushing for a mixture of program cuts and tax increases on the wealthy while Republican leaders argued against any tax increases and all budgetary relief coming from cutting government spending on programs. The plan to cut programs including Medicare, Social Security and a variety of other programs that benefit poor and disadvantaged people led directly to Lederman and the other faith leaders speaking to congressional representatives and Senators about what they said was an immoral budget that would harm those in need to benefit the wealthiest Americans.
The compromise agreement eventually signed into law did end up both cutting some programs and raising taxes but the critical programs that Lederman and the others lobbied to protect did survive. Lederman said she had been in favor of increased taxes on those earning more than $250,000 a year but that she was still pleased with the tax hike on those earning more than $400,000, $450,000 for married couples.
“The important thing is that they found a compromise,” Lederman said.
A statement from Bend the Arc called the bill “imperfect yet nonetheless one worth supporting. It included the first bipartisan agreement to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans in 20 years and clearly established the principle that deficit reduction cannot and should not be achieved purely by cutting spending.”
The rhetoric coming from more extreme politicians in the lead-up to the new year often became very heated, with groups of lawmakers vowing to vote against some proposed plans no matter what and an often acrimonious atmosphere on the Hill. Moderates had to overcome the dissent in their own parties as well as contend with the disagreement of their opposite numbers, making the concluded legislation even more impressive despite immediate calls to draft a new budget to override the current law.
“There’s good people on both sides of the aisle,” Lederman said.
The faith leaders that Lederman spoke with might go back up to the Hill again depending on where budget negotiations go next, something Lederman said she would be happy to participate in again. A one-time lobbying attempt would be less effective than multiple trips to get to know the lawmakers and have them understand better the position she and the others have regarding social justice.
“Part of it is building relationships,” Lederman said.
Bend the Arc will keep up with its advocacy according to Hadar Susskind, director of the group, and will strive to convince lawmakers “to refrain from undercutting the social safety net, which plays such a crucial role in helping Americans living in poverty and those struggling to stay out of poverty.”
The dissatisfaction with the agreement on both sides has meant continued wrangling this month over a longer-term agreement but with the Democrats controlling the Senate and Republicans controlling the House of Representatives, any resolution seems unlikely in the near future.
“There’s still a lot of other things to decide,” Lederman acknowledged.
Paul Foer, the Baltimore Jewish Times’ senior news reporter, contributed to this article.