A Special Kol Nidre for Congress

Kol Nidre is the traditional Aramaic declaration recited for the Yom Kippur evening service. This solemn ceremony is meant to release the community from oaths which were made in error or under duress. The Rabbinical Assembly of New Haven has created a variant of the Kol Nidre formula for use by Congressmen, Senators and otehr politicians trapped by their pledge to Grover Norquist.

Dissolution of “No New Tax” Pledge

All vows, renunciations, bans, oaths, formulas of obligation, pledges,  and promises that were made by members of the House of Representatives or the Senate and other public officials, lawmakers,  city officials and candidates for office in the United States of America  before this Yom Kippur 5773 (17 September 2012), whether in writing or orally, to not raise taxes or impose new taxes, all are undone, repealed, cancelled, voided, annulled, and released, and regarded as neither valid nor binding by our community.  They are hereby released and forgiven by this Earthly Court, and so may they be released and forgiven by the Highest Court.

Thus ordered, thus decreed and thus released by the signatories below, constituting a rabbinic court of three under our authority and the authority of the Rabbinical Assembly of New Haven, Connecticut,  USA, and others who have joined with us.

Beit Din

  • Rabbi Jon-Jay Tilsen,  
  • Rabbi Yaakov Komisar, and
  • Rabbi Baruch A. Levine

Witnesses

  • Rabbi Murray Levine,
  • Rabbi Alan H. Lovins, and
  • Rabbi Joshua Ratner

כל נדרי ואסרי וחרמי וקנמי וכנויי וקנוסי ושבועות והבטחות והתחייבויות דנדרו ודאשתבּעו
ודאחרימו ודאסרו ודהבטחו והתחייבו חברי בית הנבחרים והסנאט ופקידי הציבור
ומחוקקים וחברי וועדי העיר ומועמדים למשרד בארצות הברית עד יום כפור זה שנת
ה׳תשע״ג בין בכתב ובין בעל פה בכוונה ללא להעלות מיסים וללא להטיל מיסים חדשים
כלּהון יהון שרן שביקין שביתין בטלין ומבוטלין לא שרירין ולא קימין.  אין כאן לא נדר
ולא אסור ולא חרם ולא קונם ולא קנס ולא שבועה ולא הבטחה ולא התחייבות ויש כאן
מחילה וסליחה וכפרה.  וכשם שמתירים בבית דין של מטה، כך יהיו מֻ תרים מבית דין של
מעלה.  

כך צוים וכך גוזרים וכך מתירים אנחנו، חתומי מטה، בישיבת בית דין של שלשה של כנסת
הרבנים בניו היבן ומצטרפים עלינו עוד רבנים מוסמכים כאן בעיר ניו היבן קנקטקט במדינת
אמריקה הצפונית.

   

Is Tikkun Olam Relevant in this Election Season?

— by Gayle Donsky

The guiding principle of Tikkun Olam obligates Jews to work toward justice and to help repair the condition of the world.  Likewise, the goals of America’s founding fathers are based on principles of equality and justice.  Yet does anyone believe Republicans are working to achieve these goals?  Can we as voters examine what is happening in politics today and use the principles of Tikkun Olam to guide us in our action?

As a news and political junkie, I have been observing this political season with dismay.  In their book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann-two of the nation’s most respected political scholars-state:   extremism in the current political system has reached an intensity that has not existed since the time of the Civil War.  They lay most of the blame on the current Republican Party that has been hijacked by extremists, effectively removing the moderate Republicans from the political process.  They believe the two-party system is essential, but think it is imperative that moderates regain the voice of the party. Though both parties have become ideologically polarized, they state:

… the Republican Party has become an insurgent outlier-ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.

Partisanship has grown so extreme that the Republican Party has stopped working to solve the country’s and the people’s problems and has instead chosen as its primary goal to defeat the President.  The primary agenda of the party has been to prevent the passage of any meaningful legislation and to obstruct executive and judicial appointments. In sum, it has worked toward preventing the executive branch from fulfilling its constitutional duties. “Republicans greeted the new president with a unified strategy of opposing, obstructing, discrediting, and nullifying every one of his important initiatives,” write Ornstein and Mann.

One example of the detrimental impact of this extremist action was the obstruction of legislation that would have raised the national debt ceiling.  This resulted in the country’s credit rating being lowered for the first time in its history.   Another is the unprecedented use of filibusters to block legislation and presidential executive and judicial nominations.  Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell stated this goal after Obama was elected:  “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

I ask, do these efforts promote Tikkun Olam and work toward social justice?

Other issues that contribute to my dismay with the leaders of the Republican Party follow the jump.

  • There is no denial that the Republican Party is significantly more responsible for increasing the power of money in the political process. Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson in their book, Winner-Take-All Politics, chronicle how, over the last three decades, money has become increasingly influential in politics. Groups representing Wall Street, big business, and the wealthy have organized to become ever more powerful instruments in the political system. Groups representing the middle class-such as unions and civic organizations-have become less powerful. The Republican time-honored line “no new taxes” has morphed into not raising taxes on the extremely rich. They oppose the estate tax and support keeping the capital gains tax low. In fact, Grover Norquist, founder of America for Tax Reform, created a pledge which opposes any increase in taxes under any circumstance. This pledge has been signed by nearly every Republican legislator.

    While they claim tax fairness for all, the Republican solution to reduce the debt opposes domestic programs that benefit both the middle class and the poor.  For example, the GOP leadership has been uncompromisingly opposed to comprehensive healthcare reform, increasing the minimum wage, extending unemployment insurance, strengthening public education, and lowering the rate of interest on college tuition loans. How are these policies supposed to help those less fortunate?

  • Though one of the main causes of the 2008 financial crisis was the lack of financial regulation, the Republican Party promotes further deregulation of banks, big business and the financial market. Can further deregulation, which, in part, caused the financial crisis, advance social justice?
  • Republicans seem to be working against equality in voter representation. Twenty Republican dominated states have passed voter identification laws that will create obstacles to voting that target the poor, minorities, and elders. While Republicans claim that these laws were passed to correct voter fraud, such fraud hardly exists. Clearly, these laws are being passed to influence elections in favor of Republican candidates. Does this position promote equality of voter representation?
  • Republican candidates are supportive of promoting government interference into women’s personal healthcare choices such as contraception. In addition they have tried to restrict low-income women from access to healthcare by opposing Planned Parenthood. Is this policy consistent with social justice?
  • Republican candidates are opposed to marriage equality. Does this position enhance social justice?
  • The Republican candidates oppose scientific evidence-based issues such as of global warming and the necessity to protect the environment. They want to reduce funding for health research, food safety, etc. Does this position support the repair of our world?

What is the relevance of Tikkun Olam in this political environment?  Should this principle come into play beyond consideration for charity and volunteering?   I believe Tikkun Olam is pertinent to our involvement in the political arena, whether with our political activity or with our vote.  In my opinion, the price of our choosing non-involvement abrogates our obligation to work for justice and the repair of the condition of the world.

The 2012-2013 Pennsylvania Budget: Areas to Improve

Daylin Leach— by Pennsylvania State Senator Daylin Leach

Since the state’s fiscal year ends at midnight on June 30th of each year, May and June are always a busy time when everyone in Harrisburg is scrambling to put together next year’s budget. We’ve had tough budgets for the past four years because during a recession, demand for government services goes up while revenues coming into the state coffers go down. Unlike the federal government, we are constitutionally required to balance our budget each year, so every dollar we spend must come from a revenue source.

There are really only two ways to eliminate a budget deficit: you can either cut expenditures or raise revenues. Actually, the smartest approach is to use a balanced approach that does both prudently. Unfortunately, for the past several years — due to the political realities of Harrisburg and the fact that Governor Corbett has pledged to Grover Norquist, a lobbyist who lives in Washington, DC, that he won’t increase revenues in any way — the budget has been balanced exclusively through cuts.

It is important to remember that there are many areas of the state budget that can’t be cut, either due to federal or state law or contractual obligations. In some cases, if we tried to cut money from a given program, we could be sued and required by a court to spend the money with interest. In other cases, our laws force additional spending. For example, Pennsylvania’s criminal code creates about 2,000 new net prisoners per year (the second highest number in the nation). This requires us to build a new prison, which costs about $300 million to build and $50 million per year to operate, every single year.

All of the cuts we can make must come from a relatively small sliver of the budget that is discretionary. This includes money for first responders, education, libraries, human services, health care for our citizens, transportation improvements and our safety net for the very poor. We have continued to go back to these same areas of funding when making deeper and deeper cuts each year.

As a result, we have now reached the point at which we are in real danger of abandoning basic government services and the citizens who rely on them. You may have read about how some of our poorer schools literally would have had to close their doors if the federal courts had not intervened and ordered us to provide additional funds. Tens of thousands of people have lost their access to healthcare, childcare facilities have had to close, and libraries are either closing or drastically cutting back their hours and programs. Schools are eliminating art and music programs, guidance counselors and tutoring; and we are opening 30,000 new natural gas rigs across the state while drastically reducing the funding for environmental inspectors charged with making sure the drilling is done safely. In short, the picture is very bleak.

Following the jump below, I am going to try to give you a fuller picture of the cuts we are facing and provide you with the alternatives for which I am fighting. In my view, we could easily raise sufficient revenue to avoid most of the worst cuts without burdening a single Pennsylvania family. We could accomplish this by, among other things, enacting a reasonable tax on the Marcellus Shale extraction that is giving energy companies billions of dollars and closing the “Delaware Loophole,” which allows 70% of Pennsylvania companies to avoid paying their fare share to help our state prosper.

These and other ideas will enable us to continue providing basic services to our citizens and will ensure that Pennsylvania is a state with the educational, economic and environmental quality of life that will attract businesses and families for decades to come. I hope you find this information helpful.

A list of programs funding to be restored and funding mechanisms follow the jump.
As I noted above, I would like to stimulate an open and honest dialogue about the current budget’s shortcomings. There are a number of cuts that I believe will be extremely harmful to our state. I will first enumerate some of the
worst of the many troubling cuts in the budget proposed by Governor Corbett.

If I want to restore the funds for these important programs, I obviously have an obligation to identify where the necessary revenues would come from. So I will provide some suggestions along those lines as well.

Top 5 most destructive cuts in the budget proposal.

  1. Higher Education
    Governor Corbett has proposed cutting higher education by 30 percent this year, on top of the 19 percent cut passed last year. These draconian proposals represent not cuts, but an abandonment of our commitment to make college affordable for all Pennsylvanians. These cuts would result in dramatic tuition increases in state related universities and put college out of reach for many of our citizens.
  2. Basic Education
    Last year, over my “no” vote, the legislature and governor enacted a budget that cut over $850 million from basic education. These cuts came disproportionately from poor school districts, but hurt all public schools. The governor
    has proposed hundreds of millions in dollars of additional cuts, including eliminating the No Child Left Behind Compliance grants and the Charter School Reimbursement grants.

  3. Department of Environmental Protection
    At a time when we are opening over 30,000 new fracking wells in Pennsylvania, the DEP budget is being cut, which will result in many fewer inspectors and enforcement agents ensuring that this new and controversial fracking technology is being used safely and responsibly.
  4. Human Services
    The governor proposes to cut human service funding by 20 percent ($168 million). These services cover needs including Mental Health, Behavioral Health, Drug & Alcohol, Intellectual Disabilities, Child Welfare, Homeless Assistance and what remains of the Human Services Development Fund. These cuts will obviously have a devastating impact on many of the most vulnerable Pennsylvanians.
  5. Child Care Services
    If this budget passes, we will have cut childcare services and assistance by almost $140 million over the past two years. Without these services, parents may be unable to get back on their feet, receive training, or go back to work if they have to turn down a job or opportunity because they can’t afford or find childcare. Also, this lack of funding could mean the elimination of “Keystone Stars”, a nationally-recognized program that provides resources and professional development to the educators who prepare children for school success.

In addition, the governor has rejected the recommendations of his own hand-picked commission to raise money to fund much needed road and bridge repairs.

How to pay for the restoration of these funds:

  1. Levying a Marcellus Shale Impact Fee
    Imposing an impact fee on drillers would go a long way toward helping recoup the loss of natural resources taken from our state, as well as toward helping us balance the budget. Going further, imposing a tax on those drillers would do even more to help us. Consider that a 6% tax on producing wells would generate about $312 million in 2012-13 and $396 million in 2013-14. This rate is consistent with what virtually every other state in the nation charges for the extraction of natural resources from its soil.
  2. Closing the Delaware Loophole
    The Delaware Loophole, a way under the law for corporations to evade paying taxes, is an issue that has needed fixed for years. For some reason, this has yet to happen. If we closed the Delaware Loophole, our state would be able to bring in $550 million in just one fiscal year.
  3. Ending the Vendor Discount
    Under the Vendor Discount, Pennsylvania pays private businesses millions of dollars each year just to handle sales tax receipts and remit them to the state. This program was conceived many years ago before the advent of computers, and since there’s no longer a valid need for it, it’s time to end it. Currently, Pennsylvania is one of only 13 states with an unlimited sales tax vendor discount. If we stopped providing this unnecessary discount, our state would save nearly $75 million per year.
  4. Taxing Smokeless Tobacco
    Currently, Pennsylvania is the only state in the nation that does not tax smokeless tobacco. This would be an easy solution that would garner $50 million per year, simply by imposing a tax of $1.35 per unit — the same tax that is levied on cigarettes.

Approaching Warren Buffett Without Violating Grover Norquist

Warren Buffett, (left) the third wealthiest person in the world, believes that the richest Americans should pay their fair share in taxes. “How can this be fair?” Buffett asked, regarding how little he pays in taxes compared to his employees. The so-called “Buffett Rule” would require billionaires to pay at least the same marginal income tax rate as Americans making $388,350 per year.

Nearly all of his income is taxed at the 15% top marginal rate for dividends and capital gains, the same rate as workers making under $44,000 in wages. The income for most Americans, the 99% if you will, is from wages, not investment income, unlike many in the 1%. Wages for the 99% are taxed up to a 35% marginal rate. Treating investment income the same way we treat wages would go a long way to restoring tax fairness.

Buffett also believes firmly in the inheritance tax, saying that repealing it would be like “choosing the 2020 Olympic team by picking the eldest sons of the gold-medal winners in the 2000 Olympics”.

Unfortunately, making these common sense changes is impossible because of Grover Norquist (right). Grover Norquist is the founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney and over 95% of all Republican Congressmen have signed Norquist’s “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” requiring them to “oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rate for individuals and business; and to oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates”.

These Congressmen hold a majority in the House of Representatives and block any action in the Senate through their misuse of the filibuster.

It would therefore seem impossible to get past Norquist, but there is a gambit that just might work.

First, do absolutely nothing until January 2013 at which time, absent action by Congress and President Obama, all of the Bush tax cuts will finally expire restoring 2001 marginal tax rates:

  • 15% for first $43,850 (assuming married filing jointly),
  • 28% on the next $62,100,
  • 31% on the next $55,500,
  • 36% on the next $126,900, and
  • 39.6% on any remaining income.

Once rates are restored to the levels we had in the Reagan and Clinton era — a time of economic prosperity it is well to remember — Democrats will have enormous leverage to push Republicans to accept a more progressive tax code. By packaging the Buffet Rule with lower rates for the 99%, the Democrats would force Republicans into voting for the Buffet Rule as part of a package of tax cuts for the vast majority of working Americans (retroactive to January 1, 2013) in order to keep their pledge. Should they fail to do so, they would be widely and rightly pilloried for serving not the 1% but the .01% making in excess of $5,000,000/year and spitting in everyone else’s eye.

This change would be considered a tax cut according to Grover Norquist’s pledge, and could be at least partially offset by increasing the tax on investment income from 15% to something more comparable to the income blue-collar Americans earn through their blood, sweat and tears.

The alternative would be to vote out Congressmen who insist on voting according to their pledge to a lobbyist instead of according to common sense and the wishes of the overwhelming majority of Americans. But that’s just crazy talk.

The Pledge

— by Pennsylvania State Senator Daylin Leach

Howdy!

Beginning when we are children, we all take pledges. The earliest pledge for most of us is when we pledge allegiance to the flag. Most of us earnestly do this before we know what “pledge” or “allegiance” mean. All I knew was that it involved “the Republic for which it stands” which I assumed was all one word (“Forwhichistan”) and was probably near some of the smaller, similarly named countries in Soviet Siberia.

As I grew older I learned there are other pledges people take, almost all of which are bad ideas. For example, some people take a “Pledge of Chastity,” which, if the statistics are any indication, is tantamount to a pledge to get pregnant, immediately.

Then there are the loyalty pledges we made people sign during our dark, McCarthy period (I refer to Senator Joseph McCarthy, not Charlie McCarthy, the ventriloquist’s dummy, whose view of anti-communist purges is more ambiguous). Turns out, that people who are disloyal, have absolutely no problem signing loyalty pledges. Go Figure.

I remember taking the Boy Scout pledge. I don’t remember all of it, but part of it was me swearing to be “brave, clean and reverent.” But as a 15 year old, I was a scrungy, blasphemous coward, so clearly that pledge needed some tweaking.

Then there was the “Pledge Pin” where a young man would insert his fraternity pin directly into the pectoral muscles of his best gal. At least that’s what I did. Maybe that’s why I never got second dates. And then some pledge their “troth,” and who the hell knows what a “troth” is?

The point is that most pledges are a bad idea. They usually involve promises to do things that you know won’t feel right or won’t be right in days to come. That’s why you take the pledge now. You are saying:

“No matter what happens in the future, no matter what facts change, or what circumstances change, or how I change, I am pledging to this bone-headed thing, no matter what. So help me God.”

Let me give you an example. suppose I take the “No Right Turn Pledge,” which says as follows:

I __________, am of reasonable intelligence. This means I am not as dumb as a ________, nor is my name _____W. ___. I hereby pledge, when driving on the streets of Pennsylvania, that I verily, and with utmost rectitude, will never, under any circumstances, make a “right turn,” or “right hand turn” as people who need extra help call it.

I shall refrain from turning right even if I am driving straight and my destination is on the right. Or, if I am heading towards a brick wall and my breaks fail, and there’s a huge cliff on the left. Or, lets say I see a big sign that says “Lots of Money ahead, on right!!!”  Nope not even then.
By my Hand  _________________

Seems kind of silly, huh? Well, our governor has signed a pledge which makes the “No Right Turn” thing seem like pure genius. I refer to the “The Taxpayer Protection Pledge.”

This is a pledge written by a man named Grover Norquist, who has, to my knowledge, never even been to Pennsylvania (he may have taken a pledge not to), but who nonetheless appears to be running the state.

Mr. Norquist’s pledge requires the signer to never, ever vote to create a new tax or increase an existing one. It does not matter how low the existing tax rate is, what kind of tax would be raised, what it would go for, how dire the state’s fiscal situation is or how tiny the increase would be.

So even if the rapture did happen on May 21 (and I’m quite sure the guy is right about the new date) and we needed a small tax on… say… cigars to help deal with all of the unexpected rivers of molten lava and swarms of locusts, that would be unacceptable to Grover.

This pledge applies under absolutely all circumstances. If it only applied when it made sense, you wouldn’t need a pledge. That would be a no-brainer and not require the services of Mr. Norquist.

Recently, some in the legislature suggested that we charge the Marcellus Shale drilling industry a “local impact fee” to help defray the costs of the damage they do to the communities where they drill. The supporters of this proposal made it very clear that this was not a “tax.” It was a “fee.” You can tell because “tax” and “fee” aren’t even spelled the same. Plus, the money raised would not go to educating kids or giving medicine to sick people, or any other part of the radical, Kenyan Socialist agenda. Surely, Grover Norquist would smile on this.

But alas unicorns, it was not to be. Grover, communing with the Spirit of Jack Kemp, as well as the spirits of the Koch Brothers, who while not actually dead, are too rich to require physical bodies, issued his edict. This fee was really a tax, and would be a violation of The Pledge.

So apparently, because the Governor signed this ridiculous pledge to ignore all facts forever, our hands are tied. Grover Norquist rules the day, despite the fact that this does great damage to our state, despite the fact that he was never elected to anything in Pennsylvania, and despite the fact that his name is Grover.

I have an idea for a pledge. It goes something like this…

“I, ______ hereby pledge that I will address every public policy question with an open mind, and that I will consider all the facts and do my best to do what’s right for the people of Pennsylvania, without regard to rigid ideologies, or bone-headed pledges written by dudes I’ve never met named “Grover.”

In the name of Zeus ____________

Done. Now I’m off to put my troth on EBay.

Daylin