Four years after Congress enacted new rules barring groups that lobby from paying for House Members to take long trips, dozens of lawmakers traveled to Israel this summer with staffers and family members for seven-day tours paid for by the nonprofit arm of a pro-Israel lobbying group.
The August trips, which cost about $10,000 a person and could total more than $1 million by the time the receipts are in, were all sponsored by a nonprofit organization so closely tied to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that the groups are almost indistinguishable.
The biennial summer exodus to Israel is paid for by the nonprofit American Israel Education Foundation, a charity arm of AIPAC. The two organizations share leaders, employees and money. Even some of the speakers on the August excursions advertise that they interact with Members on behalf of AIPAC.
“The purpose of the 2007 travel restrictions was to remove these types of sponsored trips. Most of these trips tend to be nothing but an extension of lobbying,” said Craig Holman of the watchdog group Public Citizen. But “when it came to negotiating the travel rules regarding privately funding trips, a huge gaping loophole was written in to exempt nonprofits. ... I call it the ‘AIPAC loophole.’” Holman was among the public interest advocates involved in helping Congress draft the travel rules.
An AIPAC spokesman said the organization does not comment on Congressional travel and did not provide a contact at the AIEF who could comment.
The Big Spenders
During the odd-numbered years in which it sponsors en masse trips to Israel, the American Israel Education Foundation has been the top spender on Congressional travel. In 2009, the nonprofit group spent about $1.2 million sending lawmakers, staffers and family members on trips, making Israel the most visited location outside the United States, according to records maintained by LegiStorm.
A nonprofit think tank called the Aspen Institute is also a top sponsor of Congressional travel, spending more than $600,000 the past few years, but the institute does not lobby.
“When I was first trying to draft this provision, I was convinced it couldn’t be regulated and wanted to ban privately sponsored travel altogether,” Holman said. But “Aspen Institute convinced me these trips could be worthwhile if [the organization] had no lobbying entity.”
Other top spenders on Congressional travel last year included the Turkish Coalition of America, Fu Jen Catholic University, the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the Center for American Progress.
Rules Leave Room for Influence
The House Ethics Manual acknowledges that “travel may be among the most attractive and expensive gifts” that a Member can receive, which is why in 2007 the rules were revised to “ban lobbyist involvement in planning, organizing, requesting or arranging most trips.”