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Members Flock to Israel With Travel Loophole

Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images
House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (left) speaks with Israeli President Shimon Peres during a trip last month that was paid for by the American Israel Education Foundation.

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.”

Any Member who wishes to participate in a privately sponsored trip must receive written permission from the House Ethics Committee and submit a pre-trip certification confirming the trip was not financed by a lobbyist or foreign agent.

Obtaining approval for a trip appears to be largely a formality: Of the 1,500 requests the committee received in 2010, more than 1,300 were approved, according to an Ethics Committee annual report.

The Senate travel rules are similar, except Senators are permitted to go on trips sponsored by any 501(c)(3) charitable organization, even though they are permitted to engage in limited lobbying. The House carved out a similar exception for colleges and universities.

Tax records and other public documents show how closely organizations that fund Congressional travel can be linked to lobbying entities.

The American Israel Education Foundation and AIPAC, for example, share an address, employees and board members. The AIPAC website in the past has encouraged its supporters to give to the foundation, which does not have its own website. Foundation Executive Director Richard Fishman, who signs off on the Congressional travel forms filed with the Ethics Committee, receives his $395,000 annual salary from AIPAC, as do the foundation’s other paid employees. The foundation’s single largest expenditure in 2009 was $13,503,472 it transferred to AIPAC for educational programs, according to tax records. More than a fifth of AIPAC’s revenue that year came in the form of grants from the foundation, according to the organizations’ most recent tax records. AIPAC spent $2.75 million last year lobbying the federal government.

As in years past, last month’s trips included mostly Members of the House. Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) led a group of at least 25 Democratic lawmakers and four of his staffers just days after Congress broke for recess. The next week, Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) guided as many as 32 Members, 26 family members and five staffers, according to the invite list.

Other groups that sponsor Congressional travel also maintain close ties to lobbying groups, records show.

The international humanitarian Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere, for example, reports in its filings to the IRS that it is affiliated with an entity called Care Action Now, which spent $385,000 last year lobbying Congress, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The Center for American Progress, which seeks to promote progressive ideals to “critique the policy that stems from conservative values,” does not report a formal affiliation with a lobbying group. Its annual tax return, however, shows that the nonprofit gave a cash grant of almost $5.6 million in 2009 — the most recent year for which records are available — to a related group called the Center for American Progress Action Fund. The fund spent nearly $1 million lobbying Congress that year. The two organizations list the same address and telephone number.

An organization representative pointed out that Senate rules allow all 501(c)(3)s to sponsor travel — last year CAP sent six Senate staffers to China — and said even the action fund’s primary purpose is social welfare, not lobbying.

“Pursuant to Senate Rules, registered lobbyists from CAP Action did not participate in this trip, nor were they involved in the planning of the trip or the selection of invitees,” the spokeswoman said. “The trip was for educational purposes only and was in no way related to CAP Action’s lobbying activities.”

Some experts agree that nonprofit sponsorship of Congressional travel serves a valuable purpose, regardless of whether they engage in activities with lobbying entities.

“Whenever anyone hears of these Members taking trips they think they’re boondoggles. The truth is, they’re not. ... They’re worthwhile time spent by Members of Congress on educational trips abroad and are hard to accomplish without these nonprofits,” said Kenneth Gross, an attorney at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.

Trips Advance Policy Goals

During the August trips, participants met with Israeli government officials and Middle East scholars and learned about Israel’s strategic concerns, in meetings often described in the press as official Congressional delegations.

Those experiences stick with Members: Hoyer once told a group gathered at AIPAC’s annual policy conference that past visits to the country left an “indelible impression” on the lawmakers that “provoked strong agreement on several important points.”

“Members of AIPAC, Israel’s fight is our fight,” Hoyer said.

During his most recent visit, Hoyer encouraged a group of ambassadors from around the world to oppose Palestinian statehood at the United Nations, after co-sponsoring a nonbinding resolution on the same issue that passed the House by a 407-6 vote just weeks before. AIPAC vehemently opposes Palestine’s bid for recognition at the U.N. and has urged supporters to take action against it.

Holman said trips that “proselytize” one position over another are not in the spirit of the revised rules, and he said the success of the Israeli travel will encourage more lobbying groups to work in tandem with nonprofits to arrange travel.

“As more lobbying entities become aware of the loophole, I expect this to start spinning out of control eventually. It’s a loophole we’re going to have to close,” Holman said.

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