A motivated group of 13 members of the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh spent two days in the nation’s capital last week, advocating for greater access to medical care for the disabled and against capping tax refunds for charitable contributions.
Arriving at noon March 24, the group had lunch at the Jewish Federations of North America’s Washington office, where they were briefed by the organization’s senior vice president of public policy and director of the D.C. office, William Daroff, and senior legislative associate David Feinman.
From there, the delegation went to the White House and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy for briefings from policy experts on health care, disabilities and Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
The next day, after a breakfast with Robert Wexler, president of the Daniel S. Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, the group set off for the offices of Pennsylvania legislators for the advocacy part of their mission on Capitol Hill.
First came meetings with Democratic Sen. Robert Casey’s staff and Republican Sen. Pat Toomey’s staff in the Senate reception room next to the gallery. Toomey briefly stepped out of the chamber, which was voting at the time, to meet the delegation.
That was followed by a long walk to the House side of the Capitol for lunch with Pennsylvania Reps. Keith Rothfus (R), Tim Murphy (R) and Mike Doyle (D), who took turns speaking and answering questions.
Gregg Roman, director of the Community Relations Council, who led the effort in putting together the trip, felt that the mission was a resounding success.
The legislators “shared with us how bipartisan the western Pennsylvania delegation is, and you only get a good sense of that when you actually hear it from them and see it in action,” said Roman.
When the delegates got their chance to share their concerns, the first agenda item up for discussion was the CRC’s stance against legislation placing a cap on charitable deductions.
In his new budget, President Barack Obama proposed to cap charitable tax deductions at 28 percent. Another bill, the Tax Reform Act of 2014 sponsored by Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), plans to put the cap at 39.6 percent.
To the CRC, any move away from the current 50 percent cap would harm not only the Pittsburgh Federation, but other charities and nonprofits as well.
“The charitable tax deduction is not a loophole, it’s a lifeline,” explained Roman. “Two percent of Americans accounted for 37 percent of all charitable giving last year. Those 2 percent were above the $200,000 income line.”
Reducing the charitable tax breaks would make it harder for nongovernmental organizations to partner with governments at all levels to provide essential social services, the delegates told legislators.
Next up was the Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act, which aims to create tax-exempt accounts for disabled individuals that would not be counted toward their eligibility for Medicaid or other means-tested programs. Currently, in order to qualify for Social Security Disability Supplemental Income (SSDI), applicants may not have an annual gross income greater than $12,500 and $2,000 in savings, according to Roman.
A disabled individual wanting to work, Roman pointed out, is unable to emerge out of poverty without losing essential programs.
The group also discussed the Behavioral Health Information Technology Act. Proposed by Murphy, it intends to bridge the gap created when behavioral and psychiatric health professionals were excluded from accessing government assistance to transfer their physical medical records to electronic records.
While the congressmembers were all co-sponsors of the legislation under discussion, they said that with the midterm elections coming in November, key issues like the charitable tax refund would probably not be handled until next year.
CRC chairman Skip Grinberg thought the trip was a worthwhile 36 hours.
“Generally, everybody was very positive about the visit,” said Grinberg. “We talked about it on the bus, and I think it stimulated a lot of discussion among the group about different issues.
“It was a good, substantive delegation,” he added.
“I think we bonded pretty well and were able to have some nice discussions on how we might proceed going forward.”