Opposition to lobbying reforms pits Jews against powerful lawmakers

By Matthew E. Berger, JTA

WASHINGTON — As plans for lobbying reform trickle down from both political parties in the U.S. Congress, a unified American Jewish establishment is finding itself in an increasingly precarious position.

Jewish groups are already quietly fighting some of the reform proposals, especially the proposed ban on foreign travel paid for by lobbyists, which could prevent groups from sending lawmakers to Israel.

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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.

“The entire Jewish community is mobilized, ” said William Daroff, vice president for public policy of the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella of the North American federation movement. “There is unanimity of opinion on the value of these trips from a public policy position. “

Despite their efforts at quiet diplomacy, the Jewish voice is clearly being heard.

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 congressional Republicans and Democrats each vying to be seen as the strongest on reform, advocates of more moderate lobbying reforms are not being well received 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 current attention to the issue, thinking that presenting a tough bill will help them in the midterm elections in November.

Republicans, meanwhile, are hoping quick reforms 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..

They are trying to make the case that they need to be able 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 important international locales, like Sudan, and to communities around the United States, to meet with Jewish audiences and 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’re calling “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 (R-Ill.).

“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 to be exempted from any new lobbying regulations, just as they are exempted from current lobbying restrictions. The Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, which set the rules lawmakers currently operate under, 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 paid for 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 (R-Texas), then the House majority leader, and Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), 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.

He noted that Abramoff used non-profit groups for some of his trips, which has complicated the line between legitimate and illegitimate sponsors of travel.

Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), one of two Republican Jews in the Senate, asked about AIPAC travel in a hearing on lobbying reform before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Jan. 25.

“AIPAC does a service in having members go to Israel, when you get to meet with leaders, ” Coleman said.

“That would be bad — that would be prohibited if we take the approach that’s been articulated here. So I don’t think that helps us be better senators. “

Observers believe there is likely to be a middle ground, because congressmen want to be able to travel, especially on so-called fact-finding trips.

“If you still allow privately funded travel, but you don’t allow the payment of such travel by registered lobbyists, there will be a way for groups to take members abroad for educational purposes, ” said one congressional official, who asked not to be identified.

“My sense is that groups like AIPAC can figure out a way to put a significant firewall around their educational programs.”