What a Dollar Gets You on Capitol Hill, and What It Doesn’t

Opinion

By Douglas M. Bloomfield

Published November 04, 2009, issue of November 13, 2009.
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Jewish money. It’s the stuff of political myth, but it’s also the backbone of the pro-Israel lobby.

One Jewish congressman recently said that voting against a resolution condemning the hateful diatribe of a follower of Louis Farrakhan on free speech grounds cost him $250,000 in political contributions from Jewish supporters that year. The incident has become a badge of honor for Rep. Bob Filner, a California Democrat, who told the recent J Street conference, “That kind of money is an intimidating factor, but my conscience was clear.”

His message sounded like something out of Walt and Mearsheimer: Jewish money controls the agenda on Capitol Hill, and only the few and truly courageous can withstand the pressure. Not so fast, Bob.

Freshman Congressman Jared Polis, sitting alongside Filner, said pro-Israel campaign givers are “no different than any other single-issue group.” But they are treated differently, he added, cautioning against giving “cover” to those who “think there is a Jewish conspiracy” to control American foreign policy.

The Wall Street Journal for many years would run post-election stories about the influence of pro-Israel money on elections as if it were some sinister scheme to undermine the Republic. There was no similar, pernicious treatment of contributions from other politically active groups or business interests like tobacco, oil or guns. Just Jews.

That’s not all bad. The stories created the myth of enormous power. Numerous politicians attributed their defeats to pro-Israel money pouring into their opponents’ coffers, and the folks who wrote the checks were delighted to take all the credit, even if they didn’t deserve it. One secret of pro-Israel donors’ success is that while they may have helped, their influence was greatly exaggerated. It is a mistake in politics to question those who want to polish your reputation for power and influence.

The media, always seeking the unseen hands at the levers of American politics and policy, promoted the myth, and lawmakers would look for ways to ingratiate themselves to these mythically powerful money people.

The reality is that pro-Israel money is not likely to turn around a hostile lawmaker’s vote, but it can buy access and influence when the politician is already predisposed toward the cause, or make the difference between passive and active support.

I’ve seen lawmakers who began voting for foreign aid after visits from constituents and supporters, not because yesterday they opposed it and today they don’t, but, as one Texas congressman explained, “because no one ever asked me to vote for it before.”

Lawmakers often compete to introduce, sponsor or vote for pro-Israel measures — generally non-binding and mostly meaningless “sense of Congress” resolutions — to prove their pro-Israel bona fides without taking any political chances. It’s part of their search for bragging rights. One curmudgeonly old chairman blocked a senator’s amendment not because he opposed it but because, as he explained, “I ain’t gonna be out-Israel’d by anyone.”

Does pro-Israel money drive American Middle East policy? No, but it helps steer. While it plays an important role — sometimes helping elect supportive lawmakers who can try to influence government policy — it is not in the driver’s seat.

Unlike Filner, I see nothing wrong with using political contributions to reward friends and punish foes. Contributing and withholding money are both valid forms of political expression. If Filner lost contributors because of a principled stand, the people who disagreed were also standing up for what they believed in.

Yes, as Filner said, “the pressure is intense,” and it takes “backbone” to withstand it, but remember Harry Truman’s advice about hot kitchens.

Douglas M. Bloomfield is president of Bloomfield Associates Inc., a Washington lobbying and consulting firm. He served during the 1980s as legislative director and chief lobbyist for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.


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