Jewish groups unite against lobbying reform

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.

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.”

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.

“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. “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.

Jewish groups are focusing on what they’re calling “smart reform,” which advocates for compromises that would allow non-profit groups to continue paying for educational travel to Israel and other important international locales.

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.

The Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, which set the rules under which lawmakers currently operate, 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 AIPAC’s.

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 prohibited if we take the approach that’s been articulated here. So I don’t think that helps us be better senators.”

“My sense is that groups like AIPAC can figure out a way to put a significant firewall around their educational programs,” said one congressional official, who asked not to be identified.