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.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "If you want my advice: more Palestinians, more checkpoints, just more reality." What do you think?
  • Happy birthday Barbra Streisand! Our favorite Funny Girl turns 72 today.
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.