January 23, 2004
This week, President George W. Bush delivered his third State of the Union address. The staff of Religious Action Center, the voice of the Reform Movement in Washington, has prepared an analysis of the President's speech in relation to the resolutions passed by the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Each year, the RAC selects six outstanding recent college graduates to work as Eisendrath Legislative Assistants (LAs). LAs advocate in Washington, DC for Jewish values and social justice on behalf of the Reform Jewish Movement. They take part in a wide range of social action activities including monitoring legislative activity, developing synagogue social action programming, coordinating special events, creating educational materials, planning and running weekend conferences for teens, and mobilizing the grassroots of American Jewry. Below, this year's LAs, as well as Ariella Thal, Program Coordinator for the World Union for Progressive Judaism, respond to the proposals outlined by President Bush in his 2004 State of the Union speech. Barbara Weinstein, the RAC's Legislative Director, provides an overview of the themes of the President's speech.
I hope you find our analysis enlightening and look forward to working with you on these and other issues of social justice throughout the year to come.
Rabbi David Saperstein
Overview: Barbara Weinstein
President Bush's annual State of the Union address, delivered before a joint session of Congress Tuesday night, was a clear and powerful declaration of his beliefs on issues as diverse as civil liberties, health care, education, the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans, the separation of church and state, immigration, and drug use.
In Pirke Avot, we are taught by Hillel not to separate ourselves from the community, and as Jews we have a strong sense of responsibility for the communities to which we belong. Yet in paragraph after paragraph, President Bush's speech argued that the federal government does not have a responsibility to help its citizens improve their lives. On health care, education, and social services, the President clearly stated that the government must do less and the private sector must pick up the slack. While we all-private and public sector workers together-have a responsibility to one another, it is the government that is ultimately accountable for the well-being and safety of its citizens. Of all the institutions in our society, only the federal government was created "of the people, by the people and for the people."
There were, however, a few areas in which the President argued that government does have a greater role to play in the lives of its citizens. President Bush strongly advocated reauthorization of the USA PATRIOT Act, passed after September 11, 2001 to provide law enforcement with new tools to use in the fight against terror. Yet while there are some provisions within the law that are reasonable and effective, many of its measures go too far in infringing on Americans' civil liberties. As the Union for Reform Judaism noted in its 2001 resolution "September 11 and its Aftermath," "We believe that civil liberties are our strength, not our weakness."
At the same time, in his support for a constitutional amendment barring marriage between individuals of the same gender, President Bush highlighted another area in which he believes the government should be more intrusive in the lives of its citizens. For many years, the Reform Movement has supported equal rights for gays and lesbians, following the teaching of Leviticus 19:18, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." For this reason, in 1997, the Union for Reform Judaism passed a resolution in support of "Civil Marriage for Gay and Lesbian Jewish Couples." The CCAR has passed similar resolutions. As the Union's resolution notes, "Legal recognition of monogamous domestic gay and lesbian relationships and congregational honoring of these couples will together provide these men and women and their families with dignity and self esteem." Gay and lesbian couples should have the same rights and responsibilities that heterosexual couples share. The federal government has a responsibility to provide for the well-being of all its citizens--no matter their sexual orientation--and any effort to impose a constitutional amendment limiting marriage to heterosexuals is an abdication of those responsibilities.
The President's speech also contained many positive proposals deserving of support. The work of fighting terrorism continues and as the President rightly noted, "law enforcement personnel and intelligence officers are tracking terrorist threats; analysts are examining airline passenger lists; the men and women of our new Homeland Security Department are patrolling our coasts and borders. And their vigilance is protecting America." At the same time, the people of Iraq are experiencing a freedom that they have not known in decades. As well, the President rightly noted that as more countries agree to disarm their weapons of mass destruction, as has Libya in recent weeks, the world is changing for the better. On the domestic front, the President drew much-needed attention to the problem of sexually transmitted diseases. By focusing on the difficulties faced by former prisoners reentering society and proposing an assistance initiative for them, President Bush will hopefully aid in reducing the rate of recidivism among former prison inmates. And although our views on the way to solve the problems of our nation's health care, education and welfare systems may differ, the President rightly put those issues at the forefront of his domestic agenda. Above all, President Bush's declaration that "Our aim is a democratic peace, a peace founded upon the dignity and rights of every man and woman" is one that we share for the people of our country and all countries around the world.
Civil Liberties: David Segal
Not surprisingly, one of the main themes of the State of the Union was President Bush's aggressive stance on fighting the war on terror. The Reform Jewish Movement stands with the President and with all Americans who resolve to combat terrorism and protect our national security. However, our lawmakers and our President must take steps to protect our vital civil liberties and our cherished constitutional rights even while prosecuting the war on terror. While we agree with the President that, "we must continue to give homeland security and law enforcement personnel every tool they need to defend us," we do not believe that the PATRIOT Act - in its entirety - is such a necessary tool.
To be sure, many provisions, which we support, in the PATRIOT Act have granted law enforcement and intelligence agencies valuable authority to share information and track down terrorists. But certain provisions - such as those authorizing "sneak and peek" searches and setting an overly broad definition of "terrorism" - overstep the bounds of reasonable infringement on civil liberties. We call on Congress and the President not to simply "renew the PATRIOT Act" but to thoroughly review its controversial provisions and craft a new law that properly balances the needs of national security with our cherished freedoms and the requirements of our Constitution. Our law enforcement and antiterrorism personnel must have powerful tools to fight terrorism and protect our citizens, and at the same time our country must preserve the legacy of liberty that makes America a light to the nations.
Reproductive Rights: Beth Kalisch
The President opened the State of the Union address with words that could describe much of American history but that seem to resonate with particular urgency in this new year. Face to face with a Congressional chamber packed with our nation's leaders and television cameras broadcasting to our nation's multitudes, President Bush began with a sobering reminder that "America this evening is a nation called to great responsibilities." The President devoted most of his speech to the responsibilities that the United States has to the peoples of Iraq and Afghanistan, to the women and men in its military, and to our own poor. Yet one of his most important recognitions of our national responsibility referred to our responsibility to protect the health of our nation's youth: "To encourage right choices, we must be willing to confront the dangers young people face - even when they're difficult to talk about. Each year, about three million teenagers contract sexually transmitted diseases that can harm them, or kill them, or prevent them from ever becoming parents." We strongly commend the President for forthrightly calling for such a national discussion.
But while speaking frankly about sexuality and reproductive health is essential to addressing the problems our teenagers face, the plan President Bush proceeded to describe ducks those difficult conversations and abandons our teenagers. Promoting "abstinence-only" sexuality education programs instead of demanding comprehensive sex education that gives our students accurate and thorough information about how to protect themselves from STDs and unwanted pregnancies, President Bush undermines the sense of national responsibility he invoked in the beginning of his speech. Studies show that the availability of accurate information about reproduction, sexually transmitted diseases, and contraception have been demonstrated to have a positive impact on curbing adolescent pregnancy and the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases. Young Americans need age-appropriate sexuality education that arms them with the tools necessary to ensure their health and well-being.
Reentry of Former Prisoners into Society: Rob Levy and David Segal
We applaud President Bush's commitment to ensuring the safe and productive reentry of former inmates into society. Recidivism is much more likely if released prisoners have insufficient access to jobs and job training, health care, and housing. The Reform Movement has held since 1968 that a society that is serious about reducing crime must be serious about preparing inmates for their lives after prison. Thus we commend the President's proposal of a "four-year, 300 million dollar Prisoner Re-Entry Initiative to expand job training and placement services, to provide transitional housing, and to help newly released prisoners get mentoring…."
Unfortunately, the President's initiative includes the use of government funds by faith-based groups to help mentor former prisoners. Reaching out to people who are attempting to change their lives for the better is a deeply religious act. However, the President's noble proposal runs into the same problems as his Faith-Based Initiative in this respect (see below), and would be better served by leaving prisoner rehabilitation, to the extent that is required and funded by the federal government, to secular institutions.
GLBT Issues and Judicial Nominations: Beth Kalisch
Although the President has spoken out in recent months on the issue of same sex marriages, the brusque treatment the issue was given during the State of the Union speech did not do service to the seriousness or importance of the topic. President Bush's statement of support for a Constitutional Amendment banning same sex marriages flies in the face of his affirmation that "each individual has dignity and value in God's sight." Preventing gays and lesbians from participating in civil marriages perpetuates discrimination against a group of Americans who merely want to participate equally in society by availing themselves of the same rights and responsibilities afforded heterosexual couples.
In addition, the President's concern about "activist judges" (a reference to recent court rulings at the state and federal levels protecting the rights of gay and lesbian Americans) rang hollow in light of his recent attempts to appoint radically conservative judges. In fact, the rulings that the President derided in his speech extended basic civil rights to gay and lesbian individuals and affirmed that all Americans are deserving of the same protections under the law. Were it not for the rulings of judges with similarly progressive viewpoints, the landmark cases that advanced the rights of African Americans might have been decided differently, and the racial injustice once accepted by American society as legal and just might still be the law of the land. President Bush's characterization of judicial rulings as the "arbitrary will" of justices who flaunt "the people's voice" seemed particularly ill-timed in light of our recent celebration of the 75th anniversary of the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Enforcing the civil rights protections of our Constitution is not an imposition of arbitrary will but an insight into legal and moral obligation.
International Religious Freedom: Ariella Thal
In his State of the Union address, President Bush spoke of having responded boldly to the need for reform and security in Afghanistan and Iraq. But I have to ask, are we really fulfilling our responsibility to ensure that the people of Afghanistan and Iraq live in freedom?
Early this week, President Bush touted the newly adopted Afghani Constitution. But, according to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, Afghanistan's new constitution leaves much to be desired. While the Constitution does have provisions recognizing human rights and the equality of men and women, it does not include a guarantee of freedom of thought, conscience or religion. Of particular concern are anti-conversion laws, the supremacy of Islamic law over all other laws and freedoms, and the leeway given to judges in interpreting the scope of particular rights within the context of Islamic law. In Iraq, some religious leaders have already begun to advocate the drafting of a constitution that is very similar to Afghanistan's.
The people of Afghanistan and Iraq are entitled to the freedoms guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. America, as an advocate for democracy and freedom, must guide these governments toward policies of tolerance and respect. For, in the words of President Bush, "We have not come all this way - through tragedy, and trial, and war - only to falter and leave our work unfinished."
Tax Cuts and the Economy: Sheryl Shapiro
In his opening remarks, President Bush emphatically claimed that the "American economy is growing stronger," and the "tax relief you [Congress] passed is working." This rhetoric hides the reality that 2.3 million jobs have been shed during President Bush's term and the economy would have to create 226,000 jobs a month through the end of President Bush's term to make up for these lost private-sector jobs.
"For the sake of job growth," President Bush asserted, "the tax cuts you [Congress] passed should be permanent." But the results of past policy have proven that tax cuts that disproportionately benefit the wealthy do not stimulate the economy or create jobs and prosperity for all Americans. Such tax cuts put more money into the hands of the wealthiest Americans and leave the nation's poorest citizens in even more dire need. With states facing the worst fiscal crisis since World War II, including a dearth of funds to fuel health programs, police and fire departments, and other vital social services, half of America continues to be left behind. The President spoke of the successes of doubling the child tax credit from $500 to $1000 and the phasing out of the estate tax - and he asked that his $1.7 trillion in tax cuts be made permanent. He failed to mention that the refundable portion of the child tax credit was never raised; the families of the 12 million children living in households that earn between $10,500 and $26,625 did not reap the benefits of that relief. Additionally the estate tax cut only benefits the nation's millionaires and billionaires--the wealthiest 2% of estates. At the same time, these funds are vitally needed federal revenue to ensure the strength of Social Security and Medicare, educate and invest in our children, and secure our homeland. Drastically cutting taxes robs the country of valuable funds needed to create a stable economy and lift millions of people out of poverty. As the Union for Reform Judaism noted in its 2001 resolution on "General Principles of Responsible United States Tax Policy," "We support tax policy, both now and in the future, that reflects our deep Jewish commitment to the achievement of a just society in which all people can live with dignity and respect."
Not only is cutting taxes not the answer to solving our economic problems, but President Bush's "Jobs for the 21st Century" program is also unlikely to help moderate and low-income Americans. While the proposal strives to improve the quality of education in our nation's middle and high schools, and to better prepare current students for success in the job market, the proposal's only initiative for people who have passed high school age but did not receive a quality education or fell through the cracks is a partnership between community colleges and employers in high-demand job sectors. Meanwhile, the recipients of the nation's welfare program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, those Americans most in need of job training and education to lift themselves out of poverty, would have great difficulty taking advantage of these services. President Bush's proposal for TANF reauthorization last year called for an increase in hours recipients must work, but never called for an increase in hours of job training or education that could be counted toward that total. The TANF reauthorization bill passed by the House or Representatives last February would limit recipients' ability to engage in job training or other training or assistance activities to no more than three months in 24 as a primary activity and the current Senate Finance Committee bill would allow participation in barrier removal and education activities for up to six months in 24 as long as these activities are combined with work or work-readiness activities during months four to six. TANF recipients need more opportunities to gain literacy and mathematical skills and to receive job training so that they too can secure good jobs.
Health Care and Hunger: Sheryl Shapiro
In his speech, President Bush rightly addressed one of the nation's most pressing problems: the rising cost of health care and number of Americans who lack health insurance. However, the recently passed Medicare prescription drug bill is a mixed bag. It will significantly help many; but many others will receive little or no help. More alarmingly, it privatizes the Medicare program and will ultimately harm low-income Americans.
President Bush's proposal to solve the health insurance crisis for low-income Americans fails to address the extent of the problem. The President called on Congress to establish refundable tax credits of up to $1,000 for individuals and $3,000 for families to help low-income workers buy health insurance coverage. But these tax credits are not large enough to make insurance truly affordable for low-income Americans. When the proposed tax credits lure the wealthiest and healthiest of Americans into high-deductible health plans, they leave the sicker and poorer in traditional insurance and cause premiums for those receiving traditional insurance to soar. Knowing that 43.6 million Americans lacked health insurance in 2002, the country must address the root causes of this problem and consider a system of universal health care, instead of overhauling the health care system to convert an employer-based system to one in which individuals must purchase expensive health care on their own.
President Bush also spoke about the importance of healthy families and helping children to make responsible choices. But children cannot make responsible choices if they are hungry all day. Studies have shown that children who eat healthy breakfasts and lunches learn more in school-but many of the nation's children have little to eat between lunch one day and the next. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, nearly three million school children experienced hunger in 2002. It is disappointing that President Bush failed to address this growing problem in his speech.
Education: Rob Levy
President Bush's State of the Union speech touted the success of the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, noting "We are making progress toward excellence for every child in America." Yet the strict testing and accountability standards which are the cornerstone of that legislation have drawn mixed results from students and school officials, and the law ignores funding for proven methods of improving education, such as class-size reduction, increased resources, and extra-curricular programs. More importantly, the Act itself is significantly under-funded, making it nearly impossible for schools to implement the changes required by the law. Finally, it should be noted that the Administration strongly pushed the D.C. voucher program that would give federal funds to private, mostly religious, schools but the Senate refused to apply the same testing and accountability standards to the voucher program that the No Child Left Behind Act says are so indispensable to good, public education.
To his credit, the President did propose a new program, Jobs for the 21st Century, which would provide extra funding for math and science programs in public schools, increase Pell Grants for college, and increase support for community colleges. We welcome these new proposals, but we remain alarmed that the Administration is still falling vastly behind meeting the urgent needs our nation's school system.
Faith Based Initiative: Rob Levy
For the third straight year, the President used his State of the Union speech to highlight his Faith-Based Initiative, a program to distribute federal funds to faith-based institutions providing social services. Not only did he celebrate the money he has single-handedly authorized to these groups through Executive Order, but despite the Senate's rejection of his efforts last year, the President again urged Congress "to codify this into law, so people of faith can know that the law will never discriminate against them again." Yet the President's Faith-Based Initiative threatens the autonomy of houses of worship by introducing government oversight, promotes divisive sectarian competition for funding, impinges on the rights of social service beneficiaries, and authorizes government funded discrimination in hiring. By offering up limited federal funds to religious organizations, and calling on them to pick up services from which government is withdrawing, the Administration continues to abdicate its obligation to help those in need. Without any significant overall increase in resources toward social services spending in the nation, there is no guarantee that a single additional needy person will be helped by this program.
Israel: Rob Levy
The President did not take the occasion of his State of the Union speech to emphasize the importance of efforts to move a peace process forward in Israel. Though his speech dwelled heavily on the need to fight terrorism for the sake of America and the world, the President made scarce mention of the U.S.-sponsored Road Map to peace, or the importance of ending the violence that has plagued the region. Across America, supporters of Israel hope and pray that the President will not abdicate an assertive American role in achieving a two-state solution to this conflict, the only solution that provides for a secure, Jewish state of Israel next to a democratic state of Palestine.
Energy: Zach Rosenberg
While U.S. energy policy affects the global environment, national security, and the strength of the American economy, President Bush gave scant attention to the issue in his State of the Union address. The President pressed for immediate action on energy legislation, urging Congress "to pass legislation to modernize our electricity system, promote conservation and make America less dependent on foreign sources of energy." Yet the bill currently before Congress does little to reduce foreign dependence on oil or substantially increase investment for renewable energy. Instead, the stalled legislation contains funding for exploring potential offshore drilling sites, massive subsidies for polluting industries, and refuses to raise gas efficiency standards for our vehicle fleet. The failure to increase standards for SUVs and trucks has been a constant obstacle to fuel savings in America. We applaud the President's recognition that conservation is an essential part of any national energy policy. Americans deserve a safe, clean, and responsible energy policy that reflects our moral obligation to protect public health and our environment. The Reform Jewish Movement opposes irresponsible provisions in the energy bill as it stands and advocates significantly greater increases in fuel economy standards, as well as increased investment in technology and clean energy sources.
Iraq: Jacob Fain
Although the Reform Movement did not take a position on the war with Iraq, we strongly support the tens of thousands of young men and women in our military who have ended the reign of Saddam Hussein, one of the world's most egregious violators of human rights. Together with the help of the two dozen other countries that committed resources to liberating Iraq, our armed forces have brought hope to millions - both those in Iraq who lived under Hussein's regime, and to those oppressed in other nations who can now imagine a new life for themselves. We agree with the President's assertion that "For all who love freedom and peace, the world without Saddam Hussein's regime is a better and safer place." We remain concerned about the failure to have planned for the aftermath of the war and the alienation of much of the international community in the methods we have chosen.
Nuclear Proliferation: Zach Rosenberg
President Bush is right to prioritize "keeping the world's most dangerous weapons out of the hands of the world's most dangerous regimes," as he argued in his State of the Union address. Among the chief threats to American and global security is that posed by hostile countries and terrorist groups acquiring nuclear weapons, and we must be vigilant about our defense. However, by promoting new nuclear weapons, the Bush Administration has set up a double standard that weakens international efforts to stop the spread and use of nuclear weapons. By maintaining our large nuclear arsenal indefinitely, we boast a willingness to use them, create war strategies that feature them, and foster the mental preparation necessary to wreak horrendous destruction upon others. Yet, the best way to keep America safe from the dangers of nuclear destruction is to prevent nuclear materials from being stolen, and to continue our international commitments to substantially reduce our own nuclear arms. American assistance to Russia in properly securing its weapons and materials must also accelerate and be a central part of the effort to create a more secure world. The President must provide direct leadership and support nonproliferation efforts.
Global Poverty and AIDS: Jacob Fain
President Bush spoke at length on the need to build successfully free and open democracies in Afghanistan and Iraq, and claimed, "because of American leadership and resolve, the world is changing for the better." However, for the nearly half of the world's population living in abject poverty, this is not true. Today, more than 840 million people around the world will go hungry. More than 1.1 billion people lack access to clean drinking water. 2.4 billion live without decent sanitation. For these men, women and children, the greatest threat to their security is finding where the next meal will come from, or hoping that the next illness they suffer will not be their last. President Bush's claim that the world is changing for the better cannot lay solely on his efforts to reduce access to weapons of mass destruction or the removal of dictators. We, the world's richest country, must also address the poverty ravaging the developing world. For pocket change in comparison to the war in Iraq, we could bring hope to hundreds of millions around the world.
Last year in his State of the Union address, President Bush issued a historic call to arms against the global AIDS pandemic, committing $15 billion to the fight, over five years. His leadership, coupled with new initiatives from the World Health Organization, and other donor nations, has made treatment possible for millions of people who had been facing a death sentence for lack of access to medication. However, over the course of the year, the President then opposed efforts to fully fund our efforts to fight the pandemic.
"Seldom has history offered a greater opportunity to do so much for so many." These were the President's words just 12 months ago. Now, as another 3 million people have since died of AIDS, we call on the U.S. government to commit its fair share of the global need. According to most international health experts, that amount is $5.4 billion to save lives and fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria worldwide. There can be no clearer example of a situation where money equals lives, and we urge the President to match his words with actions--minimally by funding his commitment of $3 billion a year and hopefully increasing it in light of the overwhelming nature of the crisis.
The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is the Washington office of the Union for Reform Judaism, whose more than 900 congregations across North America encompass 1.5 million Reform Jews , and the Central Conference of American Rabbis(CCAR) whose membership includes more than 1800 Reform rabbis .