WASHINGTON — As both political parties in Congress offer plans for lobbying reform, the American Jewish establishment finds itself in an increasingly precarious position.
Jewish groups are already quietly fighting some of the reform proposals, especially the proposed ban on foreign travel financed by lobbyists, which could prevent groups from sending lawmakers to Israel.
But picking this fight could pit Jewish groups against many of the congressional leaders they often try to court.
The lobbying reform issue may become one of the most important issues of the year for Jewish lobbyists, say community activists.
Around Capitol Hill, the debate over foreign travel for lawmakers is being called the “Aipac question,” sources said, noting the reference to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby.
With both parties vying to be seen as the stronger on reform, advocates of more moderate lobbying reforms are not being received well in the halls of Congress.
Jewish officials say lawmakers are telling them that the proposals they are seeing now will change, and the end result will likely be legislation that would not restrict all travel.
“Everybody says, ‘You probably won’t be happy with where the debate starts, but we pledge you’ll be happy with where the debate ends,’” said one Jewish official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “Neither side wants to be seen as soft on ethics, and neither wants to be out-flanked by the other.”
Some Democrats want to capitalize on the issue’s current prominence, reasoning that presenting a tough bill will help them in the midterm elections in November.
Republicans, meanwhile, hope quick reform will neutralize the bad press they have received in the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal.
Despite their intense opposition, Jewish groups so far are conducting a quiet campaign, relying on prominent lay leaders and professionals to speak privately to lawmakers.
Jewish leaders argue that they need the ability to take members of Congress to Israel to help foster strong support for the Jewish state. They say it is also important to allow lawmakers to travel to other international locales, like Sudan, and to communities around the United States, in order to meet with Jewish audiences and to see how federal funds are spent.
Jewish organizational leaders have held a series of conference calls in the past few weeks, discussing tactics for opposing the travel ban.
They are focusing on what they call “smart reform,” advocating for changes to lobbying rules, but against a ban on paying for congressional travel. Specifically, they are seeking compromises that would allow non-profit groups to continue paying for educational travel.
“We’re not talking about a public campaign,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which organized a call last week. “We’re all sensitive to the implications, and we’re in favor of reform.”
A number of Jewish groups, including Aipac, joined a wide range of non-governmental organizations in a letter this week opposing the travel ban, authored by the Institute on Religion and Public Policy.
“If NGOs are barred from funding educational travel by members and staff, such travel will be feasible only with taxpayer funds or at personal expense,” said the letter, sent to House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican.
“If members must travel only at their own expense, the toll of the traveling cost will inevitably lead to minimal travel.”
Meanwhile, religious groups are seeking exemption from any new lobbying regulations, just as they are exempted from current lobbying restrictions. The Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, which set the rules under which lawmakers currently operate, allows “churches” to participate in the political process without registering as official lobbies. A coalition of religious organizations, led by Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, is pressuring lawmakers to continue that practice, sources said.
Saperstein declined to comment.
Crafting a strategy of opposition to the lobbying reforms has been complicated by the numerous plans in the works. Some propose a total ban on privately funded lawmaker travel, others would ban only travel funded by lobbyists or that includes lobbyists on the trip and still others would ban even separate educational travel programs, like the one Aipac has established.
Aipac currently brings registered lobbyists on its trips, a spokesman said. Last year, separate trips were led by Reps. Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican then the House majority leader, and Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, the minority whip.
Democratic aides tried to assure Jewish activists that some travel would be allowed but have felt pressure in recent weeks to keep pace with the Republican proposal.
“They are sympathetic to our concerns, but there is a sense they have to do something about this, and drawing those kinds of lines is not easy to do,” said Richard Foltin, legislative director of the American Jewish Committee.