Legal and ethical questions for Congress reps on all-expenses paid jaunt to Israel
Robbing Peter to Pay Israel
By Josh Ruebner,
Nearly 20 percent of the constituents of Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D-IL) live under the poverty line, and nearly 15 percent are unemployed. Jackson’s congressional district, covering parts of the south side of Chicago and its southern suburbs, has been hit harder than many others by the crises plaguing the economy. Many of his constituents are looking at even more cutbacks in social services, higher prices for food and fuel, and ever scarcer jobs.
During this August congressional recess, Rep. Jackson, Jr. should be at home, meeting with constituents and proposing to them how he will help them cope with their difficult circumstances. Instead, the politician is proudly gallivanting around Israel, in one of three separate congressional delegations heading there this month on all-expense-paid junkets organized by the American Israel Education Foundation (AIEF), a so-called charitable affiliate of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the most influential of the myriad pro-Israel lobbying outfits.
In total, 81 representatives, nearly one-fifth of the entire House, will participate in these jaunts, which, according to The Washington Post, include “a round-trip flight in business class for lawmakers and their spouses (that alone is worth about $8,000), fine hotels and meals, side trips, and transportation and guides.”
Of course, these congressional delegations are not all fun and games. Members of Congress will be expected to sing for their lavish dinners by honoring President Bush’s 2007 pledge to provide the Israeli military with $30 billion of tax-payer-funded weapons between 2009 and 2018. So far, proposed increases in military aid to Israel have been spared from the budgetary chopping block by President Obama and a compliant Congress that treats Israeli militarism as more sacrosanct than medical care for seniors. This despite the fact that Israel misuses the funds, in violation of the Arms Export Control Act, to commit human rights abuses against Palestinians living under its illegal 44-year military occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza Strip.
According to aidtoisrael.org, constituents in Illinois’ 2nd congressional district will be asked to cough up an astonishing $53 million in federal taxes as their pound of flesh for the Israeli military during this 10-year period. With this same amount of money, each year the federal government instead could give 650 low-income families housing vouchers, or retrain nearly 900 unemployed workers for green jobs, or fund early reading programs for nearly 1,600 at-risk children, or provide primary health care to more than 43,000 uninsured people in Rep. Jackson’s congressional district.
Yali Amit, an Israeli-American constituent of Rep. Jackson, Jr. called his office to oppose his participation in the trip to Israel. He was told that Rep. Jackson, Jr. wants to learn what is happening there because of his position on the appropriations subcommittee that approves military aid to Israel. Amit retorted that “you can’t learn what goes on there on a paid trip of a propaganda arm of the Israeli government.” And you certainly can’t learn about the devastating impact that these U.S. weapons have on unarmed Palestinian civilians, nearly 3,000 of whom were killed by the Israeli military over the last decade.
The House Committee on Ethics should open an investigation to determine if it is even legal for Members of Congress to be participating in junkets organized by AIEF. The guidelines of the committee are as bright and clear as the midday sun on a Tel Aviv beach in August. “The travel provisions of the gift rule severely limit the ability of Members and staff to accept travel from an entity that employs or retains a registered lobbyist or a registered agent of a foreign principal.” (Emphasis in original.)
Legistorm, which tracks congressional travel, explains that “even though AIPAC’s primary purpose is lobbying, its nonprofit arm [AIEF] appears to provide a loophole for sponsored travel.” However, this eureka loophole that AIPAC uses does not withstand scrutiny. According to the latest publicly available tax return of AIEF, the organization has no paid employees — an astounding feat in itself for an organization that raked in more than $26 million in 2009 and a mind-blowing accomplishment for an organization running three huge congressional delegations in one month.
An examination of AIPAC’s latest publicly available tax return reveals the sleight of hand. AIPAC reports that in 2009, it very generously contributed more than $3.2 million of employee salaries to cover the staff costs of AIEF. In other words, a 501(c)(4) organization with registered lobbyists is paying for the staff of a 501(c)(3) organization to run congressional delegations that cannot be funded by an organization that employs registered lobbyists.
Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist at Public Citizen who helped draft the new post-Abramoff federal lobbying and ethics reform legislation signed into law in 2007, agrees that something is rotten in state of AIPAC. According to Holman, “The House ethics rules do not provide an exemption for 501(c)(3)s that are controlled and directed by a lobbying entity to pay for travel junkets for members of Congress. When the ethics rules were written in 2007 as part of the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act (HLOGA), an exemption for 501(c)(3)s was written into the Senate rules – which I called the ‘AIPAC’ loophole – but the House under Speaker Pelosi stuck to strict travel rules for its members and declined to poke a comparable loophole into its ethics rules.
“Even if there were such a loophole in House rules,” Holman continues, “which there isn’t, it appears that the 501(c)(3) wing of AIPAC is little more than a front group designed to extend its lobbying activities beyond Capitol Hill. From 2000 to 2006, lobbyist Richard Kessler similarly attempted to evade the ethics rule prohibiting lobbyist- sponsored travel junkets by setting up a 501(c)(3) that he directly controlled to pay for the trips. HLOGA was passed in 2007 to end these types of evasions.”
Constituents should be irate that members of Congress accept fancy trips from AIPAC-affiliates and contributions from AIPAC-inspired political action committee (PACs) that result in the United States prioritizing weapons to Israel above our basic economic rights. And the Committee on Ethics must investigate AIPAC’s skirting of travel regulations and shut down these trips that it has until now allowed.