Goodbye from the LAs
Today the five Eisendrath Legislative Assistants say goodbye after an amazing year representing the Union for Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C. We have worked on nearly 70 different legislative issues, represented the RAC in countless coalitions, seen some bills signed into law and others tragically defeated, said goodbye to one Congress and welcomed the next. All in all it has been an incredible year.
It is perhaps fitting that this week’s parsha – Shoftim – contains the one of the RAC’s favorite passages, “tzedek, tzedek tirdof – justice, justice you shall pursue.” Because at their core, what else are the RAC, the incredible LA program and the Reform Movement about if not pursuing justice. We wanted to sign off by sharing just a handful of the justices (and injustices) we have encountered this year.
Well, it has been a rather slow year in the fields of campaign finance reform, healthcare and the environment. The 2012 Presidential election, which saw a record amount of outside spending and massive war-chests for both presidential candidates and the myriad other candidates for elected office, put climate change and energy policy on the back burner. Of course election season, when it matters most, did not generate much of a push from either side of the argument for or against campaign finance reform. Then when the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, making it far more difficult to prevent voter suppression, we were left with a difficult path forward to maintain the fairness of our elections. I recently summarized the last year on these big issue of climate change thusly, “the good news is nothing bad is happening. The bad news is nothing good is happening.” Of course, President Obama has started to make the environment and energy policy a bigger priority the last few months. With any luck this year will be known as the calm before the superstorm of climate change policy changes. Healthcare really got the lion’s share of my attention this year, but not because of any positive pieces of legislation. Some Members of Congress continue to take votes to defund, repeal or cripple the Affordable Care Act. Of course we can expect exactly none of them to ever be given a vote in the Senate, much less be signed by the President; nevertheless, it has become something of a grim ritual that happens with discouraging regularity. There was also that unfortunate decision to deny healthcare coverage to DREAMers, but with open enrollment set to begin October 1, the good news may finally begin pouring in again.
Wow—what a whirlwind year it’s been! Our Fall started off with the Farm Bill and urging the protection of SNAP, which feeds over 46 million Americans through our nation’s flagship nutrition program. We succeeded—work requirements were defeated, block grants halted in their tracks and no Farm Bill cutting SNAP made it to the President’s desk. Actually, no Farm Bill at all made it through both chambers of Congress, which is why, one year later, we are still working on the Farm Bill and urging Congress to protect and strengthen SNAP.
In the November election we again successfully defeated initiatives on state ballots that would have allowed public funding of churches and other religious institutions. Yet the fight for religious freedom continues, as shown by Rabbi Saperstein’s recent testimony urging the separation of church and state be upheld in a current energy bill.
As you may recall, December was one of the lowest points of the year with the defeat of the disability treaty. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities represents an international effort to bring the world closer to achieving the goals of equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living and economic self-sufficiency for people with disabilities. Despite broad support, however, the disability treaty failed by just five votes on the floor of the Senate. Sitting in the Senate gallery, I watched as Senators changed their votes at the last minute and people with disabilities and advocates sitting next to me dissolved into tears. We have not lost the fight in us, however, and are continuing to push for its ratification. Even our teens have joined us, as you can see in our recent video straight from Kutz camp!
This year we successfully raised the issue of poverty—which affects 1 in 6 Americans—to the level of debate during the Presidential election. Still, though, people living in poverty are ignored in Congressional debates and in the lawmaking process. Sequestration—another bookend of our year—disproportionately affects the most vulnerable in our communities, kicking kids off of Head Start programs and cutting Meals on Wheels service to seniors. Together this year, we’ve fended off much worse proposals, but especially as a new budget fight nears in October, we must continue to advocate for a balanced approach to deficit reduction that will not destroy the safety net of programs serving low-income families.
It has been an amazing year to join all of you in the struggle for equality for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Since I began this job last year, twice as many people now live in marriage equality states (a full 1/3 of the country!). It was wonderful to watch our rabbis and communities around the country take a stand in support of these important rights and celebrate in these amazing victories. Over 500 rabbis submitted a letter to the Boy Scouts demanding that they lift their ban on LGBT people’s participation, and now gay youth can join the organization. And the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which the RAC has devoted considerable time and energy to this year, has never had a better chance of becoming law.
My other issue areas have been, perhaps, less uplifting, but no less interesting and important. A year ago hardly anyone was talking about the continued detention of 166 men at the military prison in Guantanamo. A year ago hardly anyone was talking about U.S. policies on drones and targeted killing abroad. A year ago we could not have imagined the continued war in Syria, the tragedy in Benghazi and the dramatic developments in Egypt. But all of these issues have seen a resurgence on the political landscape and it has been such an opportunity to follow and learn about them along with you all.
I cannot think of a more rewarding experience than having spent a year in Washington working on behalf of the Reform Jewish community on issues of social justice. When I look back on this year, and think about the progress that we have made on some of the issues that I have been lucky enough to work on, I can’t help but be more optimistic about the future. To think that, in one year, Middle East peace talks have resumed, gun violence prevention is no longer a taboo topic, the death penalty has been eradicated in yet another state, women now have the legal ability to pray at the Western Wall and the FBI is now recording data on hate crimes committed against Sikhs and Arabs! As proud as I am of the work that we, as a community, have done together, I am most excited for the work that I know the Reform Jewish community will continue with your partnership. Thanks for a great year!
We talk a lot in Washington about gridlock preventing anything from getting done – and for good reason. But there has been a lot of positive change in the last year! The Violence Against Women Act turned 18 – and was finally at long last reauthorized and signed in to law. Roe v. Wade turned 40. The Supreme Court term turned out to be one of the most significant in history. Record numbers of women were voted into Congress, free contraception access was implemented across the country and emergency contraception was made available over the counter. DREAMers were saved by executive order and comprehensive immigration reform passed the United States Senate.
That being said, we certainly have a lot more work to do. Women are still paid 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man. Comprehensive immigration reform has yet to be passed in the House. Though servicewomen have increased access to reproductive health necessities, the rates of military sexual assault are still too high. Reproductive rights around the country are at risk, the FDA maintains discriminatory policies, judicial vacancies abound, and the sequester is hitting our most vulnerable communities hard. Yet instead of succumbing to the gridlock, I hope that we can look to our victories as inspiration, and that as next year’s LAs say goodbye, we will be even one step closer on the arc toward justice.
As we take a moment to reflect, perhaps what is most moving about ending this year at Parshat Shoftim is seeing the words tzedek tzedek tirdof not as a stand-alone slogan, but in the context of a broader narrative. For that is the question as we leave this wonderful opportunity – how do we continue to pursue justice as we leave a stand-alone institution and enter the context of a broader life in school, jobs and the great unknown? We may not yet know the answer, but thanks to what we’ve learned this year, at least we know how – and why – to ask the question.