Lawmakers’ Israel Trips May Face Restrictions

Published January 20, 2006, issue of January 20, 2006.
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In the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal, Jewish groups are closely watching plans to restrict lawmakers’ lobbyist-sponsored travel, which could have a devastating impact on Israel trips that build support for the Jewish state in Congress.

Rules proposed in Congress this month could place stringent restrictions on how lawmakers travel at the expense of lobbyists and the organizations connected to them. The most aggressive plans call for restrictions on paying for legislators’ hotel rooms and airfares. This could prevent legislators from traveling across the country to speak to such interest groups as American Jewish organizations.

Jewish lobbyists and advocates in Washington said they’ll watch the proposed regulations closely when Congress returns to work later this month, for fear that the rules could restrict legitimate travel.

“It could really change the access that elected officials have to their own constituencies,” said Hadar Susskind, Washington director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “If they can’t speak and they can’t come to Israel with their community leaders, it’s a significant effect on their ability to understand their constituency and the issues that affect them.”

A proposal, introduced Tuesday by Illinois Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert, would ban all privately sponsored travel for members of the House.

The proposed legislation would not affect official congressional delegations, which are paid for by taxpayers.

“I know fact-finding trips are important,” Hastert said at a press conference. “This body considers legislation that affects people that cannot always travel to Washington to petition the government. Private travel has been abused by some, and I believe we need to put an end to it.”

Two Republican senators, John McCain of Arizona and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, also proposed a plan Tuesday that stressed disclosure of travel and gifts and increased sanctions for violations. Other proposals, by both Republican and Democratic leaders, are expected to be unveiled later this week.

One suggested rule, proposed by Wisconsin Democrat Rep. David Obey, would forbid lobbyists from paying for or participating in trips by lawmakers and would prevent trips sponsored by organizations that perform any lobbying activities. Many Jewish groups perform some lobbying activities and likely would be included in the ban, analysts said.

“Any member can travel anywhere they want to go; they’ve just got to do it on their own dime,” said Ellis Brachman, an Obey spokesman.

Jewish groups have used trips to Israel as a key tool to winning support from lawmakers, especially non-Jewish members of Congress. Such trips have helped the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and other groups sensitize lawmakers to Israeli and Jewish concerns.

For example, President Bush was said to be deeply moved during a 1998 trip to Israel, which he made while serving as governor of Texas. During the visit he formed strong ties with Ariel Sharon, future Israeli prime minister. The Republican Jewish Coalition paid for the trip.

The trips, which often include extensive travel in Israel and meetings with key political leaders, have been credited with convincing lawmakers to side with Israel on controversial topics such as the West Bank security barrier and the Gaza pullout.

Jewish leaders say that the Republican proposals could hurt domestic priorities, as well.

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