Mid-East Realitieswww.middleeast.org



"U.S. lawmakers took 163 privately funded trips to Israel;
more than one in five current members of Congress have

traveled there. That compares with 139 to Mexico, the next most
popular foreign destination, 97 to Italy and 87 to Germany... Israel
has been the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid since World War II."

MER - MiddleEast.Org - Washington - 25 February: The Abramoff/Lobbying Scandal in Washington has exposed to some degree the deeply corrupting and oh-so-incestuous relationship in this capital between big-money promoters of various kinds and elected government officials. Of course it's all tied as well to the miserably out of control campaign finance system as well as the 'revolving doors' that push elected officials into the waiting arms of corporate and government-connected entities that pay big bucks down the road for services rendered and contacts amassed when in office. The system is in actuality one of legalized payoffs and unconscionable self-serving deals that rarely see the light of day for it is oh-so-hard to get the confirmable facts and to even try to keep up with the ususally quite secret under-the-table arrangements and deals. Even with the Abramoff scandal still unfolding the lobbyists and their benefactors are working overtime to keep the system in place even while pretending to reform it. And when it comes to Israel, the country that benefits the most from the lobby groups and Institutes that pay for members of Congress and the Administration to visit the Jewish State -- the big guns are out now making sure the system will continue one way or another and the unprecedented flow of money, arms, and help will continue to flow from Washington to Israel. At the top of the list of who funds these things are the Aspen Institute, run by Walter Isaacson, a well-connected American Jew, and the American Israel Education Fund an offshoot of the America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) which together pay for more than half of the foreign trips, the majority to the single small country of Israel.

Pro-Israel Groups Fight Efforts to Ban U.S. Lawmakers' Travel

Feb. 24 (Bloomberg) -- Jewish groups have made Israel the top foreign destination for U.S. lawmakers on privately funded trips. Now, they're fighting to make sure the fallout from the Jack Abramoff scandal doesn't ground those flights.

Organizations including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee are lobbying against a proposed congressional ban on trips financed by private groups. The Washington-based committee, the largest pro-Israel lobby in the U.S., joined more than 30 other religious and educational groups in writing to House Speaker Dennis Hastert last month arguing ``there is no substitute for travel'' in helping lawmakers grasp policy issues.

While many lawmakers say they favor private travel for ``educational purposes,'' the lavish trips arranged by Abramoff - - which are at the heart of a federal investigation of the Republican lobbyist -- also were ostensibly aimed at educating lawmakers.

``There's no easy way to distinguish the legitimate from the non-legitimate,'' said Stan Brand, a former U.S. House counsel who specializes in representing public officials accused of wrongdoing. ``What makes sense to me is if it's officially related, that it be paid for by the government. If it's that meaningful, there's no reason Uncle Sam can't pay.''

The momentum for a travel ban may be flagging after Hastert, an Illinois Republican, first proposed it on Jan. 17, Brand said. House Majority Leader John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, is opposed to a ban, saying he favors more disclosure of trips. ``It looks like the train has been slowed down because for now the furor has subsided,'' Brand said. ``The next series of indictments or charges will rev it up again.''

Scotland Focus

Abramoff, 46, last month pleaded guilty to defrauding clients and conspiring to corrupt public officials. He's cooperating with investigators, who are looking at golf trips to Scotland that he arranged and billed as educational opportunities through a foundation.

Between 2000 and 2005, U.S. lawmakers took 163 privately funded trips to Israel; more than one in five current members of Congress have traveled there. That compares with 139 to Mexico, the next most popular foreign destination, 97 to Italy and 87 to Germany, according to PoliticalMoneyLine, a Washington-based company that tracks money in politics.

Israel has been the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid since World War II.

Educational Value

Representatives of Jewish groups say the educational value of the travel to the lawmakers is clear.

``We are not bringing them to play golf,'' said William Daroff, vice president for public policy at United Jewish Communities, a New York umbrella group that's lobbying against a total travel ban. ``Certainly there have been excesses; certainly there are bad actors. To throw out the baby with the bathwater is not a reasoned or mature approach to dealing with the problem.''

Daroff said his group and others that back Israel are talking to the leadership of both parties in the House and Senate as well as the committees that oversee lobbying. Their argument about the value of the trips resonates with many lawmakers.

``If your constituents want to take you to Israel or take you to the West Bank and they've formed a group to do that, I think there's logic to that,'' said Representative Christopher Shays of Connecticut, a Republican who's sponsoring lobbying- overhaul legislation. ``I haven't gone on an Aipac trip, but I would like to think that would be available to me.''

No Upstaging Republicans

Shays said that while he wouldn't argue for a complete travel ban, he also won't allow Democrats to upstage Republicans. ``If they come forward with an amendment like that, I'm going to support it,'' he said.

Shays and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, singled out the Aspen Institute, a nonprofit group that says its mission is to ``foster enlightened leadership,'' as one that probably should be exempted from travel restrictions.

Yet the Aspen Institute -- which shells out more money for congressional travel than any other private group -- is the same class of nonprofit organization that prosecutors say Abramoff used in an attempt to corrupt public officials. So is the American Israel Education Foundation, an affiliate of Aipac, which is a registered lobbying organization.

The Washington-based National Center for Public Policy Research, which promotes free-market policies, sponsored a trip to Scotland for former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican, in 2000. Abramoff, who was a member of the center's board, billed some expenses for the trip to his own credit card, the Washington Post reported last year.

Ney, Feeney

Republican Representatives Bob Ney of Ohio and Tom Feeney of Florida also went on Abramoff trips to Scotland and reported that they were sponsored by the center. The center denied paying for those trips. Its president, Amy Ridenour, declined to comment, citing the investigation. At a Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing last year, Ridenour said Abramoff's actions surprised her since she considered him a longtime friend.

Dick Clark, a former U.S. senator from Iowa who runs the Aspen Institute's congressional travel program, proposed in January that Congress ban groups that employ lobbyists from sponsoring travel and forbid lobbyists from participating.

Participants in Aspen Institute trips are required to attend all conference events, which include at least six hours a day of seminars, meetings and meals with scholars. Between 2000 and 2005, the institute spent almost $3.5 million on congressional travel, according to PoliticalMoneyLine.

``Part of the reason for taking members out of the country is to get them away from their workaday focus so that they can really dig down deep into a subject,'' said Aspen spokesman James Spiegelman. ``Without the benefit of that, it would be a loss not only for our own program but for the members themselves.''

$1 Million for Travel

The American Israel Education Foundation spent just more than $1 million in that time bringing lawmakers to Israel, according to PoliticalMoneyLine. House Majority and Minority Whips Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, and Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, each took two trips sponsored by the group. Representatives Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican, and Shelley Berkley, a Nevada Democrat, went on three.

Aipac spokesman Josh Block said the trips ``have long been considered among the most substantive, educational and valuable trips available for members of Congress.''

Blunt ``thinks it's really important for new members of Congress to see first-hand the situation in the Middle East,'' spokeswoman Burson Taylor said. Blunt would support a complete ban, though he's not actively pushing for one, she said.

``There is some educational travel that does appear to be legitimate,'' said Larry Noble, the former top lawyer for the Federal Election Commission who directs Washington's Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog group. ``Maybe they can find a way to carve out an exception, but they have to be careful that it doesn't allow an Abramoff to do what he did through a different route.''

The following table lists the top 10 private groups that funded trips for lawmakers between 2000 and 2005. The list is based on lawmakers' disclosures compiled by PoliticalMoneyLine.

   Group                                             Total Spent
Aspen Institute $3,478,992
American Israel Education Foundation $1,032,038
Ripon Society $762,592
International Management and Development Institute $535,276
Association of American Railroads $407,925
Harvard University $333,439
Nuclear Energy Institute $324,317
American Association of Airport Executives $297,803
U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other chambers $260,458
Islamic Free Market Institute Foundation $247,037


 Kristin Jensen in Washington kjensen@bloomberg.net

Mid-East Realitieswww.middleeast.org

Source: http://www.middleeast.org/articles/2006/2/1366.htm