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Proposed Travel Limits on Congress Don’t Faze Jewish Nonprofit Groups

December 20, 2006
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New rules that are expected to pass the Democratic-ruled Congress would strip lobbyists of an essential lobbying tool — the onsite tour. Top Democrats informed Jewish groups this week of proposed travel reform legislation that would ban lawmakers and their staffs from joining tours sponsored by organizations that employ registered lobbyists.

The consensus among Jewish groups is that the new legislation would be an inconvenience, but wouldn’t seriously hamper the trips to Israel that are considered a critical component of congressional support for Israel.

Nonprofit groups that do not employ lobbyists still would be able to sponsor such tours, according to the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella body for Jewish federations, one of the groups briefed on the new legislation.

JTA confirmed the new rules with other Jewish groups briefed on the proposed legislation by the office of Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), incoming speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.

William Daroff, the UJC’s Washington director, said Jewish groups understood the need for lobbying reform in the wake of a number of scandals that helped end Republican control of Congress. Some lawmakers and their senior staffers are alleged to have taken bribes in the form of expensive junkets disguised as educational trips.

“We are very upbeat that they have come up with a mechanism for stopping junkets while at the same time maintaining bona fide educational trips for members of Congress and their staff,” Daroff said.

Lobbying reform is among the top items on the agenda for the new Congress’ first 100 working hours as set out by Pelosi. The 100th Congress is expected to convene Jan. 4.

Until this week, the concern was that Pelosi would embrace an earlier version of the reform that would have banned trips by any group affiliated with a lobby, whether or not the group itself employed lobbyists.

Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), incoming chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, was the author of the stricter version. It effectively would have killed trips sponsored by groups like the American Israel Education Foundation, affiliated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee; Project Interchange, affiliated with the American Jewish Committee; groups affiliated with the partisan Jewish lobbies, including the Republican Jewish Coalition and the National Jewish Democratic Council; and even local federations, which are affiliated with the UJC.

Together, those nonprofits sponsor trips for about 80 lawmakers or staff in non-election years.

The affiliate groups were established in the wake of similar lobbying-reform legislation a decade ago. The idea at the time was that making such trips the province of explicitly educational groups would help weed out junkets.

It didn’t work: Lobbyists such as the recently jailed Jack Abramoff simply set up “educational” fronts to sponsor gift trips for favored lawmakers.

The thinking behind the new legislation is that keeping lobbyists off the plane and out of the hotel altogether reduces opportunities for a quid pro quo.

However, it also would mean that lawmakers on legitimate tours will be deprived of insights from those Jewish community professionals who know them best and meet with them most frequently in the halls of Congress.

“You want those people on the trips to have an opportunity to be part of the discussions because they are going to be the people interacting with the lawmakers in the halls of Congress,” said Matt Brooks, the Republican Jewish Committee’s executive director. “It removes the personal element in terms of the relationship, and the opportunity to hear the same message, the same briefings, to have access to the same information.”

Democrats who helped shape the legislation said they had to choose between writing the legislation to accommodate lobbyists or making an attempt at genuine reform.

“There will be some need to come up with new methods,” one Democrat told JTA. “The Jewish community will have to evolve.”

Trips must be preapproved by the House Ethics Committee, a process that U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said would guarantee a continuance of the Israel tours.

“Trips to Israel are not to be confused with sun and sand junkets; they make you crazy with meetings,” he said. “Taking a trip with the Jewish community to Israel means being hocked for 14 hours a day.”

One immediate result would be a reworking of salary arrangements. Registered lobbyists employed in part by the nonprofits would now be employed entirely by the lobby.

Organizations must register with Congress if, among other conditions, they employ individuals who spend more than 20 percent of their time lobbying or if the organization spends more than $24,000 a year on lobbying-related expenses for a client.

Daroff, a registered lobbyist, suggested that the inconvenience from any changes would be minimal.

“Separating lobbyists from the trips is something the federation system can live with,” he said. “We applaud Speaker-elect Pelosi and her staff and the Democratic leadership for crafting a reasonable policy that will promote good government and good policymaking.”

Richard Foltin, an American Jewish Committee lobbyist, said the organization would conduct an internal review, but anticipated that the trips would continue even if the reform legislation passes.

“We will run kosher trips,” he said.

Insiders said the impact was likely to be minimal. In Israel trips, the key relationship is not between the lawmaker and the lobbyist but between the lawmaker and the Jewish constituent who gives money to the lawmaker’s campaign and who often is present on the trip.

There’s still some residual concern that the legislation might be made stricter through an amendment introduced on the floor by a maverick. Pelosi has vowed to reopen the House floor to amendments, a process that had been squashed by Republicans.

Pro-Israel groups said they weren’t overly worried. A blanket ban would alienate a broad coalition of groups, including interest groups that pay for lawmakers to attend conventions or tour areas that need immediate attention. One recent example is the relief groups that have sponsored tours of areas hit during the 2005 storm season.

In any case, it’s broadly understood that the Israel trips, grueling 6:30 a.m.-11 p.m. affairs, are hardly junkets.

Testifying earlier this year, Brad Gordon — one of AIPAC’s top lobbyists — welcomed greater transparency, but also suggested that AIPAC’s affiliate did not have much to prove when it came to educational value.

“A typical AIEF trip will include meetings with the top political leadership of Israel, with opposition political leaders, with senior military officials, academics, journalists and senior Palestinian officials,” he said. “The trips also include visits to important historic, cultural and religious sites that help explain Israel’s unique history and provide a necessary context for both the continuing conflict there and the national psyche of Israel.”

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