WASHINGTON — Jewish organizations played a leading role in defeating the effort, launched in response to the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, to ban privately funded trips for members of Congress.
Advocates of lobbying reform and many members of Congress stepped up their push for a ban on travel paid for by private individuals and organizations after Abramoff — who organized junkets for many lawmakers — pleaded guilty in January to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy. With lawmakers fearing a public backlash over the Abramoff scandal, many members of Congress on both sides of the aisle were lining up behind legislation that would outlaw privately funded trips and place severe restrictions on gifts and meals from lobbyists.
But then Jewish organizations, in the lead of a loose coalition of nonprofit groups, moved to block the reforms on travel, arguing that one of their most effective lobbying tools has been privately sponsored trips to Israel for lawmakers. Israel is the number one foreign destination of privately funded congressional trips, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Washington’s powerful pro-Israel lobby, is the second largest underwriter of such overseas travel.
The tide appears to have turned against those pressing for a ban on travel, according to congressional insiders. They say that a solid bipartisan majority now favors watered down legislation that would impose some restrictions on privately funded travel by legislators and require full transparency, but still allow privately funded trips. The severe restrictions on gifts and meals remain.
“We’ve all been successful in making sure that there are no immediate rushes to action” on travel reform, said William Daroff, vice president for public policy at the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella group of North American Jewish federations. “We are very comfortable with the bill that is now being debated on the Senate floor because it brings about a good combination of smart reform that aims to rid the system of many of the abuses while not imposing a ban.”
In the past five years, Aipac and its affiliated American Israel Education Foundation spent almost $1.1 million dollars on trips — most of them to Israel — for members of Congress, according to PoliticalMoneyLine, a Washington lobbying and campaign finance watchdog organization. Aipac is second only to the well-funded Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, which has spent close to $ 3.5 million on trips for members of Congress since 2000. During the period surveyed, Israel was the foremost destination for such travel, accounting for 164 out of 1,922 privately funded trips overseas by members of Congress. Almost all trips to Israel are funded by Aipac, with some financed by local Jewish federations and other Jewish groups, including the American Jewish Committee. The dovish Center for Middle East Peace and Economic Cooperation spent more than $200,000 on congressional trips to Middle Eastern countries, including Israel.
Pro-Israel groups argue that banning “educational” trips, which seldom have any recreational or entertainment component — unlike the junkets organized by Abramoff and many other lobbyists — would be a mistake. During an appearance in front of the House of Representatives Rules Committee, Daroff said that banning educational trips would be “throwing the baby out with the bath water.” Congress, Daroff said, is seeking ways to block lobbyists from improperly trying to obtain legislators’ support by showering them with lavish recreational trips. But visits to Israel, he said, are intended to teach legislators and their staff “about some of the most critical foreign policy and security issues of the day.”
Many members of Congress seem to agree.
When going on Aipac-funded trips “you’d better hold your breath, because you don’t do anything but go to meetings,” said Rep. Alcee Hastings, a Florida Democrat, during his appearance at the House hearing last week.
Some watchdog groups are still lobbying for a blanket ban on privately funded trips, including travel to Israel. “The whole concept of privately financed travel is an extension of lobbying activity by interest groups, with very few exceptions, and Aipac is not one of those exceptions,” said Craig Holman, the legislative representative of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch, a nonprofit consumer-rights organization in Washington. “Even if these trips are very educational, Aipac has its own agenda that it is pushing,” he added.
Members of Congress ought to travel to the Middle East to learn about outstanding issues there, Holman said, but “they should go on a clean slate,” using taxpayer money and maintaining a balanced itinerary. “When the spinning is all done by one side, that is not a true educational experience,” but “something that rather resembles propaganda,” Holman said. He conceded that the fight for a blanket ban on privately funded travel has little chance of success.
Congress pushed for lobbying-reform legislation in January, after Abramoff pleaded guilty to corruption charges and made clear that he would share information with federal investigators about his past contacts with legislators. Last week, however, because of a growing conviction on Capitol Hill that sweeping reform is unneeded and because of sharp disagreements among House Republicans, the legislation seemed to be losing steam. Some Hill insiders even speculated that despite the initial enthusiasm, lobbying-reform legislation might not be passed this year.