In light of the midterm election results, a new level of political engagement for Jewish community activists has emerged around the domestic agenda.
The transition of U.S. congressional power from Republicans to Democrats will allow Jewish organizations involved in multiple issues to assert core social-policy concerns.
Often, less attention is paid to Jewish organizations’ significant involvement in shaping key domestic legislation and policies than to the community’s Israel advocacy. In some measure, such social activism for an array of domestic concerns also improves our credibility in foreign policy matters: Legislative alliances created around shared social concerns carry over into other policy matters of particular interest to our community.
After last week’s elections, Jewish groups, including the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, have begun defining a set of core legislative objectives. Determining legislative priorities reflects an interesting interplay at any given time between the priorities of congressional leaders and the public-policy goals established by Jewish community lobbyists.
For example, of particular importance right now both to members of Congress and to Jewish organizations will be legislation designed to increase the minimum wage, where bipartisan support can be achieved. JCPA and others also are committed to securing comprehensive immigration reform and ensuring funding associated with President Bush’s "No Child Left Behind" initiative.
Supporting stem-cell research also will figure in the congressional docket. Energy conservation and global warming are among the issues that matter to an array of Jewish institutions, including the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life and the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center.
Other organizations, including the National Council of Jewish Women, have been focusing attention on domestic violence, gun control, and women’s health issues, which may gain added prominence in the new Congress.
Similarly, Jewish groups will carefully review proposed legislation related to congressional oversight and reform of members’ fund-raising operations, connections with registered lobbyists, and the monitoring of other current fiscal practices.
Numerous organizations already have passed resolutions and policy statements addressing genocide in Darfur, Sudan. Jewish groups will continue to press Congress to act on Darfur and related human-rights priorities, seeing them as an extension of domestic concern for women and children and as a Jewish obligation to oppose genocide wherever it occurs.
Beyond these specific legislative concerns, Jewish groups representing all types of constituencies have a broad array of domestic interests, as reflected in their public-policy statements covering health care, education, church-state concerns, charitable choice, and social-welfare policies. While most Jewish organizations share a core set of interests, some — like the Orthodox Union’s Institute of Public Affairs — have a more focused and divergent agenda, opposing same-sex marriage and endorsing funding for faith-based schools.
With the nation less than two years away from choosing its next president, it’s difficult to imagine that either the White House or the Democratic leadership will want to undertake major new domestic initiatives that may be politically problematic. President Bush will want to ensure his legacy and create a political environment conducive to a Republican victory in ‘008, while Democrats will focus on retaining congressional power and retaking the White House.
As a result, this period may well be marked by a paralysis of engagement. On the other hand, the political map for ‘008 will significantly involve the Jewish community, as both parties and most presidential aspirants seek financial support and public endorsements from Jewish leaders, offering the community an opportunity to help shape campaign discourse around its key concerns.
The ‘006 elections may well be a watershed in defining the American political future and shaping Jewish public-policy interests. As congressional power shifts and as the administration reassesses its priorities, the election results offer an opportunity for the Jewish community to review its core public-policy goals as well.
It would be unrealistic to expect more than a limited number of new public-policy initiatives during this transition period, but the domestic policy arena will be one place where both parties can seek to demonstrate their credibility with the Jewish community by passing priority legislation.
Strategically, it’s in the best interests of the Jewish community to be engaged in the debate over the nation’s domestic priorities, permitting politicians and other key constituencies to appreciate how Jewish values and core public-policy principles inform and shape our communal agenda.
Steven Windmueller is dean of the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.