House Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) landed today in Israel with 41 other Democratic Representatives for a week-long, all-expenses-paid junket sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation (AIEF), the educational branch of the lobbying organization American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
Although the delegation also will visit the Israeli-occupied Palestinian West Bank and meet with Palestinians, the Israel-centric nature of the trip is evident from Hoyer’s characterization of it.
“I am pleased to join so many House Democrats in traveling to Israel to reaffirm our support for a critical U.S. ally and to continue learning about the opportunities and the challenges facing Israel and the Middle East,” Hoyer stated. “Seeing the region firsthand and meeting with key Israeli and Palestinian leaders gives Members insights into a region that is vital both to our own national interests and to global security.”
However, in addition to being wary of the one-sided narrative presented to them on this delegation, Representatives also should be aware that they may be unwittingly participating in a delegation which violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the law on congressional travel.
Clear Law, Murky Ethics Guidelines
Dr. Craig Holman, Government Affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, who drafted the 2007 Honest Leadership and Open Government Act (HLOGA), designed to curb the influence of lobbyist money in congressional travel, is unequivocal that the arrangement between AIEF and AIPAC “defies the spirit as well as the letter of the law.”
This law bars Members of Congress accepting from an entity “that retains or employs 1 or more registered lobbyists…funds earmarked directly or indirectly for the purpose of financing” congressional travel longer than one day.
However, the congressional ethics committees wrote a loophole into the implementing guidelines and regulations, “widely known as the AIPAC loophole,” Holman told Mondoweiss. HLOGA “intended to ban lobbying firms and any entity that lobbies the federal government from providing gifts of travel to lawmakers, other than a one-day trip to fly a member out to participate in a group’s conference and then fly that member back. But the ethics committees have interpreted the travel rule to allow any lobbying organization to set up a 501(c)(3) charity on paper, and use that charity to pay for congressional travel. This is what AIPAC does through its charity, AIEF.”
Here’s how the shell game works.
The latest memorandum on travel regulations published by the House Committee on Ethics in 2012 does indeed state clearly that the maximum duration of a trip sponsored by entities that employ a federal lobbyist is one day.
The Lobbying Disclosure Act requires organizations that spend more than $13,000 per quarter on direct lobbying activities to report the names of their lobbyists and the legislation they lobbied for or against.
AIPAC, according to its latest lobbying disclosure filing,spent nearly $700,000 directly lobbying Congress in the second quarter of 2019, making it ineligible to organize congressional travel longer than one day.
This is the reason why travel is organized through its affiliated organization AIEF, which does not engage in lobbying, thereby technically allowing it to organize week-long congressional travel.
So far, so good. However, this arrangement raises eyebrows when the tax returns of the two organizations are inspected. In 2016, the latest year publicly available, AIEF reported on page 57 of its tax return that it does not pay its employees; instead, AIPAC compensates them. And AIPAC duly noted on page 65 of its tax return that it paid tens of millions of dollars to AIEF.
In other words, AIPAC and AIEF admit that the former pays the salaries of the employees of the latter in part to organize congressional delegations that AIPAC is not allowed to organize.
“Though AIPAC was the first lobbying organization to exploit this loophole, it is becoming increasingly common today,” Holman says. “In fact, some lobbying firms have even made use of this loophole. As a result, we are now seeing a significant uptick once again in privately-sponsored travels for members of Congress as a means for lobbying organizations to curry favor with Congress.”
Lobby pressure on first-term members
These biased delegations to Israel prove to be formative in shaping the outlook and policy positions of many first-term Members of Congress, which is why AIPAC and its affiliated organization AIEF place so much importance on them.
A spokesperson for Hoyer declined to provide Mondoweiss with a list of the other Representatives participating and a spokesperson for the House Committee on Ethics, which approves congressional travel, also declined to comment on the delegation.
In June, Jewish Insider published the names of 20 Representatives, most of whom are in their first-term, participating in some or all of the delegation. In addition, first-term Rep. Antonio Delgado (D-NY) announced today his participation.
Also in June, The Intercept published an expose by Akelah Lacy and Ryan Grim unmasking Hoyer’s strong-arm tactics to get Representatives to go. “Hoyer, according to former members of Congress who have resisted the pressure to join AIPAC’s delegation, uses his power over the House floor agenda to coerce participation. A member who refuses an invitation can find it difficult to have their bills brought to the floor for a vote. ‘His senior staff lock down cooperating members by getting their bills to the floor and punishing non-cooperators,’ said one former representative who rejected the invitation. ‘I was tortured for a decade because I refused to go on that trip and went with J Street instead.’
These 42 Representatives will be returning to their districts from their AIEF delegation on August 11 for the remainder of the summer congressional recess. Many will be holding town hall meetings, providing constituents an opportunity to question them about their trip.