We asked the candidates eight questions. Here are the responses of Rep. William Pascrell, Democratic candidate for the ninth congressional district.
1. The “Establishment Clause” to the First Amendment – prohibiting the United States from enacting any laws or executive orders that suggest religious favoritism of any kind – has been seen as a barrier to financial aid in the form of tuition vouchers for parents who want to send their children to parochial or day schools. It also has been seen as a barrier to certain federal programs benefitting students from being used to benefit students in parochial or day schools.
As a member of Congress, how do you view the Establishment Clause? What are its limitations? What is permissible under it, in your view? What is your position on tuition tax credits specifically?
As a Catholic, I recognize the strong role religion played in the founding of this country and guiding our principles. However, I also agree with the founders that there must be a firm separation of church or synagogue – and state. Historically, this separation of church and state helped to allow Catholic-Americans, Jewish-Americans, and others the freedom to worship as they see fit in face of those who may not have accepted their beliefs.
I’m a product of the parochial Catholic school system in Paterson, and I believe that parents should have many options to provide education for their children. However, I do not believe that vouchers are the proper path to that end. Tuition tax credits are nothing more than vouchers by another name. By diverting money away from school board budgets, these programs can have a negative impact on our neediest public schools. During my years as a public school teacher in Paramus, I learned how hard our teachers work with the limited resources they are given. That’s why I support increased funding for education at all levels instead of vouchers.
This does not mean that the federal government has no responsibility to engage with and help Jewish and parochial schools. I support increased funding for programs like IDEA, which can help students with disabilities in both private and public schools. I have also fought for funding for the Department of Homeland Security’s nonprofit security grant program, which provides federal funding for security upgrades at vulnerable private institutions like yeshivas, temples, and synagogues. In the last year alone, dozens of grants were made to Jewish institutions in Passaic and Bergen counties. I fought to preserve this critical program, which is especially important in the wake of the heinous attacks on Jewish places of worship in Bergen County which took place earlier this year.
2. Many people in this district send their children to private schools, be they religious-oriented or secular. Tuition in these schools are quite high. Families, especially in the Jewish community, have several children attending these schools. The financial burden is great on these families and some have been forced to take second and even third mortgages to cover those costs. Yet the mortgage option is not readily available today because of the financial situation in the which the United States finds itself.
As a member of Congress, what would you do to help improve the mortgage situation? Aside from tuition vouchers discussed in the previous question, is there any other relief Congress might be able to offer?
I firmly believe that this economic crisis started with housing and will end with housing. That is why I supported programs like the Hardest Hit Fund, which provided $300 million to New Jersey to help stave off foreclosures of unemployed or underemployed individuals, as well as the Home Affordable Modification program, which assisted lenders and homeowners with mortgage modifications. While there is more work to be done, including helping more people modify their mortgages at lower rates, we’ve been seeing a significant increase in home and apartment construction. We need to protect these improvements in the housing market, by ensuring that important tax deductions, like the mortgage interest deduction and property tax deduction, are not used as bargaining chips to finance lower taxes for the wealthiest among us. Areas such as northern New Jersey, which have high cost of living coupled with high wages and high property values and taxes, are at risk of having the legs kicked out from under the strengthening housing market. From my seat on the Ways and Means committee, I will continue to speak for New Jersey homeowners and work to protect these important home ownership tax incentives. As a result, housing values will continue to climb and families will have access to increased equity.
3. Jewish law empowers religious courts at times to order abortions for women whose lives are endangered by a fetus, said fetus having acquired the status of a “pursuer” out to commit murder – of the woman carrying it. That is just one instance of how the abortion standards of Jewish law differ from secular codes. Indeed, at one point in the Talmud, in discussing the possibility of abortion just a moment before the head begins to crown, the Sages state unambiguously “gufa he,” meaning “it is her body.” What is your position on women’s reproductive rights? Is a woman’s body her own? Regardless of how you personally feel about abortion, do you believe it is fair to impose on all religions a standard some of them may not accept?
I support a woman’s right to choose, and firmly believe that woman should be able to make these decisions in consultation with their families, their individual faith and health professionals. I have long voted with the conviction that as a member of Congress, we should not reach into the private lives of our constituents with decisions that are this personal.
I believe that some guidelines are important and reasonable. For example, I do not believe that other people’s tax dollars should be used for abortion. I voted in favor of the partial birth abortion ban, unless the life of the mother is in jeopardy. And I believe underage children should notify their parents in some circumstances. I believe that the decision to terminate pregnancy is one that requires parental guidance to ensure that all of the right information and options are readily available.”¨”¨But I have also fought to defend Roe vs. Wade and I helped broker the breakthrough on abortion coverage that saved the health care bill. The new health care law also ends discriminatory insurance practices such as gender rating, which caused women to pay more for their insurance than men, and requires birth control coverage without a copay. That is why I have a 100 percent voting record from NARAL, and Planned Parenthood has endorsed my re-election.
4. In Zivotofsky ex rel. Zivotofsky v. Clinton, 132 S. Ct. 1421 – Supreme Court 2012, the High Court ruled that the “courts are fully capable of determining whether [a specific federal] statute may be given effect, or instead must be struck down in light of authority conferred on the Executive by the Constitution.” The facts of the case, as stated by the court in its decision, are: “Congress enacted a statute providing that Americans born in Jerusalem may elect to have ‘Israel’ listed as the place of birth on their passports. The State Department declined to follow that law, citing its longstanding policy of not taking a position on the political status of Jerusalem. When sued by an American who invoked the statute, the Secretary of State argued that the courts lacked authority to decide the case because it presented a political question. The Court of Appeals so held. We disagree.” The Supreme Court sent the case back down for adjudication. Eventually, it will have to rule.
If it upholds the congressional act, thereby affirming that Congress has a say in the formulation of foreign policy, would you as a member of Congress introduce and fight for legislation requiring – without any opportunity for periodic waivers – that the U.S. embassy be immediately removed from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and that the United States recognizes Jerusalem as the undisputed capital of the State of Israel? Do you believe that the Congress has the right to help define U.S. foreign policy? Please explain your decision.
I believe that the people of Israel have a right to choose their capital. They have chosen Jerusalem, and therefore it is only proper that the United States move our embassy there. I have supported legislation to that effect. While the final status of Jerusalem is undoubtedly one that will be a subject of negotiations in the peace process, we have our embassies in the capitals of all foreign countries, and Israel should be no exception.
I strongly believe that Congress has an important role to play in the foreign policy of this country. Congress appropriates billions of dollars every year in foreign aid, including a commitment I strongly support to provide $30 billion in aid to Israel over a 10 year period. Congress has an oversight responsibility to ensure that this funding is spent appropriately and in the manner intended.
5. Israeli settlements in the administered territories have been viewed by successive U.S. administrations, regardless of party affiliation, as barriers to achieving peace between Israel and its Palestinian neighbors. Do you agree that this true? Do you support the premise that Israel has the right to expand existing settlements to accommodate normal growth? What is your view about the construction of new settlements on the west bank? Please explain.
I strongly support a two state solution between Israel and the Palestinian people. We can hope for Jewish State of Israel to live side-by-side an autonomous Palestinian state in the west bank and Gaza in peace and security. In order to accomplish that goal, both sides understand that there will be negotiations about the final borders, and that while some areas in the west bank home to current Israeli settlements will be exchanged for land currently in Israel, others will be returned to the eventual Palestinian state.
The State of Israel recognizes that some settlements will have to be returned to an eventual Palestinian state, and continuing to invest in and expand settlements could only make peace that much more difficult to achieve. I also strongly believe that the Palestinian Authority has done a disservice to the peace process by turning away from negotiations and seeking statehood unilaterally to the United Nations. We need to do everything it takes to get both sides back to the negotiation table.
6. What is your position on foreign aid in general? What is your position on foreign aid specifically to Israel? To the Palestinians? Do you see any conflict between your general opinion and the specific ones, and if so, how do you explain this?
I support foreign aid and the ability of the United States to use that aid to be a force for greater good across the globe. I am a strong supporter of continued foreign aid to Israel. I have never voted against an appropriation to Israel in my 16 years in Congress and I strongly support the 10 year Memorandum of Understanding that will eventually provide a total of $30 billion to Israel to maintain its important qualified military edge.
I also support continued foreign aid to the Palestinian Authority so that they can continue the important work of building a robust civil society, provide for the health and safety of their people, and build the foundations of a workable state. However, I strongly oppose and will not support any aid to a Palestinian government run by Hamas. They must renounce terror and recognize the right of Israel to exist.
7. The United Nations has declared that Israel’s blockade of Gaza is legal under international law. Do you agree? In your opinion, has Israel crossed the line in preventing certain items from passing into Gaza? It is not true that Israel’s prime minister or its government has ever suggested that it agreed with the charges made against it in the so-called Gaza 54 letter. Do you agree with those charges, or with the State of Israel that those charges are false?
Unquestionably, Israel has the right to defend itself from the thousands of rockets launched into its territory by terrorists in the Gaza Strip. Israel’s current blockade of weapons, military equipment, and other products that could be used to attack Israel is entirely appropriate.
The initial blockade was organized as a list of products that could be allowed in. Many human rights groups believed that list was ever-changing and was in some cases overly broad. I believed that this approach played directly into the hands of Hamas, who could blame the terrible living conditions in Gaza on the Israelis and absolve themselves of responsibility for the result of their continued terrorist attacks. The blockade of some non-military goods also provided a subsidy to a thriving tunnel economy that provided Hamas with much needed revenue and resources.
I was therefore pleased when Prime Minister Netanyahu agreed to reorient the blockade to focus on a list of prohibited items, including weapons, and allowing in many more everyday household items and building materials. This was the policy I supported, and gives Hamas no one to blame for the conditions in Gaza but themselves.
8. The Jewish people often invoke the Shoah, the Holocaust, in declaring “never again.” By “never again” is meant that never again must the world allow the wholesale slaughter of people fore whatever reason. As such, Jews are almost always in the forefront of campaigns to call attention to the slaughter of innocents everywhere in the world. A current concern is Syria. As a congressman, what legislation would you back regarding a role for the United States in bringing an end to the slaughter of innocents there? What about Darfur and the Sudan, and other such dangerous locales? Should the United States take an active role in ending such mass murders? If yes, how do you define “active role”? If no, do you believe that the United States must not be “policeman to the world”? Either way, please elaborate on your answer.
Humanity learned an invaluable lesson in the aftermath of the World War II and the Holocaust – never again. After witnessing the genocide of 6 million Jews and millions more, the United States vowed that we would never allow a similar situation to occur under our watch.
The current situation in Syria is a humanitarian disaster of epic proportions, with tens of thousands of innocent civilians killed and hundreds of thousands of refugees displaced. In my mind, President Assad must immediately step down, which I called for over a year ago. Congress has also passed legislation I cosponsored imposing strict sanctions on the Assad family and members of his regime who are responsible for these human rights abuses.
While the United States must continue to work with its international partners to pressure Assad to step down, and provide humanitarian relief to the victims of the Assad regime, I do not support sending U.S. troops to intervene, air strikes, or arming the rebels, many of whom are affiliated with al Qaeda. I am unwilling to commit our military to involvement in yet another war in the Middle East. Our troops have already sacrificed far to much for our country over the last decade.
Regarding the conflict in Darfur, I have worked with my colleagues in Congress to prevent human suffering and hold human rights violators accountable. As a member of the Congressional Sudan Caucus, I co-sponsored the Darfur Peace and Accountability Act at the height of the crisis in 2006. This bill, which sanctioned Sudanese officials responsible for genocide and authorized assistance to the African Union Mission in Sudan, passed Congress by a wide margin. In March 2009, after Sudan expelled aid groups from the region, I wrote letters to the African Union, the Arab League, and the Chinese government urging them to pressure the government of Sudan to readmit aid workers.
Every humanitarian crisis we face is different and requires a unique response from the United States. There is no doctrine that will suddenly make so many gray areas black and white. I do not believe we have the resources or ability to be policeman to the world, but we do have a responsibility to be a force for good and use our power to further human rights and international justice across the globe. We have had some failures in our history, including the failure to prevent genocide in Rwanda. We must learn from our mistakes and use all levers of our power, including the United Nations, our military and tools like foreign aid, judiciously and responsibly in order to prevent humanitarian crises.