Two of America’s most influential Jewish organizations are gearing up for their first direct confrontation with the incoming, Democratic-led Congress. The topic: Democratic proposals for congressional ethics and lobbying reform.
At issue are two key congressional perks, targeted for elimination, that Jewish organizations rely on to achieve community goals: overseas junkets, including dozens of trips to Israel each year, funded by Jewish organizations; and an estimated $25 million a year in earmarked funds for Jewish communal projects. Both the trips and the earmarked funding face possible elimination as part of the Democrats’ pledge to fight corruption on Capitol Hill.
Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi has said she plans to bring up the ethics reform legislation “within the first 100 hours of the 110th Congress,” which will begin its session in January 2007. Activists with several Jewish and pro-Israel groups said they will be working in the coming weeks to head off or soften the specific measures they fear most.
With 41% of voters pointing in exit polls to corruption and scandals as an “extremely important” factor in how they voted last month, the Democratic victory is widely seen as a call for an overhaul of congressional ethical standards.
Most of the ethics reform measures being considered are described as lessons learned from the investigation of disgraced Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, which revealed a widespread culture of lawmakers accepting free gifts, lavish tours and personal favors in return for their votes.
Democrats are now debating the exact language of ethics reform legislation. The most sweeping proposals call for the establishment of an independent committee to oversee congressional ethics issues. More modest versions would seek only minor changes in the existing rules. Congressional sources predicted this week that in either case, the legislation will include curbs on gifts and trips sponsored by lobbying groups, limitations on earmarked spending and greater transparency in campaign finance.
Jewish groups, though supportive of most measures, are concerned about two aspects of the reform: the ban on privately funded congressional travel, and the limitations on earmarks. Both measures might — depending on the final language adopted — restrict actions of Jewish and pro-Israel groups on Capitol Hill.
All-expense-paid tours to Israel are among the most common overseas trips made by members of Congress and their aides. Watchdog groups, using data from congressional filings, have reported that Israel is the leading destination for privately sponsored congressional trips. In the years 2000 to 2005, 164 of the 1,922 overseas congressional visits were to Israel. In the past year, 62 Congress members and staffers visited Israel on trips funded by pro-Israel and Jewish groups. Most of the junkets are sponsored by the main pro-Israel lobbying group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, through its sister organization, the American Israel Education Foundation. The foundation is the second-largest sponsor of overseas trips.
Other Jewish groups sending lawmakers and their aides to Israel include United Jewish Communities, the national association of federated Jewish philanthropies. UJC operates through local federations and their affiliated community-relations committees.
The best-known political visit to Israel is probably that of President Bush in 1998, while he was governor of Texas. During the visit, which was funded by the Republican Jewish Coalition, Bush was taken on a helicopter ride over Israel and the West Bank with Ariel Sharon as his tour guide. The president has since mentioned this visit in many speeches on Middle East policy and in meetings with the Jewish community.
Jewish groups are now lobbying Congress to make sure that educational trips, such as those to Israel, be allowed to continue even under the new restrictions being considered. “Trips to Israel sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation have long been considered among the most substantive, educational and valuable trips available for members of Congress,” Aipac spokesman Josh Block said. “While in Israel, members have the opportunity to meet with both Israeli and Palestinian officials, academics, journalists, elected officials, hearing from speakers representing diverse views across the political spectrum, and get a personal, firsthand view of issues of great importance to American policy in the Middle East.”
Aipac is one of the few lobbying groups that had enacted full disclosure of trip information even before Congress made this disclosure mandatory.
Officials from several Jewish organizations have been holding intense talks with Democratic staffers over the past week to ensure that Israel educational trips will be exempt from the new restrictions, but several sources said it is too early to determine where the Democrats are heading with the legislation. “I believe that we can draft some language that keeps bona fide educational trips kosher and makes boondoggles trayf,” said William Daroff, chief Washington representative of UJC.
But for UJC, the travel limitations are only a side issue. The charity network is more worried about another part of the ethics reform legislation, directed at congressional earmarks. These are items that lawmakers are allowed to insert into spending bills to direct federal funds toward specific projects in their districts. The earmark system has been criticized as a backdoor for pouring billions of taxpayer dollars into so-called pork-barrel projects to strengthen lawmakers’ popularity among home voters, or big donors.
From an estimated $64 billion spent annually through earmarks, Jewish institutions enjoy no more than $25 million. Most of that goes to a UJC program, Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities. The program is designed to deal with graying neighborhoods or apartment complexes by financing on-site social service programs that allow elderly residents to remain in their homes.
This past year, UJC managed to get NORCs included in the Older Americans Act reauthorization bill, which could pave the way for funding the program without the need for earmarks. For now, however, a ban on earmarks will do away with funding for the program, which operates in 41 cities around the country.
Congressional sources stressed this week that a total ban on earmarks does not seem likely, due to the heavy reliance of lawmakers from both parties on them as a political vehicle. The ethics reform, however, is expected to include requirements that each earmark have the name of its individual sponsoring lawmaker attached. Drafters of this version hope that abuse of earmarks will be reduced if funding perceived as corrupt bears the name of its sponsor.