In the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal, Jewish groups are closely watching plans to restrict lawmakers' lobbyist-sponsored travel, which could have a devastating impact on Israel trips that build support for the Jewish state in Congress.
Rules proposed in Congress this month could place stringent restrictions on how lawmakers travel at the expense of lobbyists and the organizations connected to them. The most aggressive plans call for restrictions on paying for legislators' hotel rooms and airfares, which could prevent them from traveling across the country to speak to interest groups such as American Jewish organizations.
Jewish lobbyists and advocates in Washington said they would watch the proposed regulations closely when Congress returns to work later this month, worried that the rules could restrict legitimate travel.
"It could really change the access that elected officials have to their own constituencies," said Hadar Susskind, Washington director for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. "If they can't speak and they can't come to Israel with their community leaders, it's a significant effect on their ability to understand their constituency and the issues that affect them."
Jewish groups have used trips to Israel as a key tool to help lawmakers, especially non-Jewish members of Congress, understand the significance of the Jewish state and its need for political support. Such trips have helped the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and other groups sensitize Congress to Israeli concerns.
"I don't think you can overstate how important it is," said Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition. Jewish leaders say the trips change politicians' views on Israel.
For example, President Bush was said to be deeply moved during a 1998 trip to Israel as governor of Texas. He formed strong ties with future Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on the visit, paid for by the RJC.
AIPAC has sent numerous lawmakers to Israel over the years through the American Israel Education Foundation. In recent years, the group has sponsored separate trips of Democratic and Republican members of the US House of Representatives, led by Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland), the House Democratic whip, and Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Missouri), then the House majority whip.
These trips often include extensive travel in Israel and meetings with key political leaders. The trips have been credited with helping lawmakers see controversial topics such as the West Bank security barrier and the Gaza Strip withdrawal in a light favorable to Israel.
Other organizations, including political groups and local federations, have sponsored similar trips.
Jewish leaders say the Republican proposals could hurt domestic priorities as well.
"These so-called reforms will have a devastating impact on the ability of all non-profits, including those in the Jewish community, to advocate on behalf of programs and issues that are important to us," said William Daroff, vice president for public policy at the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella group of North American Jewish federations. "It also makes it nearly impossible for us to bring members of Congress to local communities to see the programs they've entrusted by supporting.
"It will be a large priority to make sure we have a seat at the table to craft out a policy that allows for bona fide, above-board advocacy and nonprofit organizations to be able to fund congressional travel," Daroff said.
The proposed legislation would not affect official congressional delegations, which are paid for by taxpayers.
A proposal, introduced Tuesday by House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Illinois), would ban all privately sponsored travel for members of the House.
"I know fact-finding trips are important," Hastert said at a press conference. "This body considers legislation that affects people that cannot always travel to Washington to petition the government. Private travel has been abused by some, and I believe we need to put an end to it."
Sens. John McCain (R-Arizona) and Rick Santorum (R-Pennsylvania) also proposed a plan Tuesday that stressed disclosure of travel and gifts and increased sanctions for violations. Other proposals, by both Republican and Democratic leaders, are expected to be unveiled later this week.
One suggested rule, proposed by Rep. David Obey (D-Wisconsin), would forbid lobbyists from paying for or participating in trips by lawmakers, and would prevent trips sponsored by organizations that perform any lobbying activities. Many Jewish groups perform some lobbying activities and likely would be included in the ban, analysts said.
"Any member can travel anywhere they want to go; they've just got to do it on their own dime," said Ellis Brachman, an Obey spokesman.
The law would also restrict travel with organizations affiliated with lobbyists, which would affect separate educational funds that sponsor Israel trips, like the one AIPAC has created. A spokesman for AIPAC would not comment on the proposed rule changes, but stressed the trips' substantive value for members of Congress.
"While in Israel, members have the opportunity to meet with both Israeli and Palestinian officials, hear from speakers representing diverse views across the political spectrum and get a personal, first-hand view of issues of great importance to American policy in the Middle East," spokesman Josh Block said.
Other ideas being considered include exempting non-profit organizations from the new regulations, which would allow Jewish groups to continue to operate as they currently do.
Jewish officials said they would wait to see what proposals are introduced before formulating a strategy. But groups already are seeking potential allies to fight a travel ban.
They also are thinking of ways around the regulations, including taking congressional candidates to the Middle East before they're elected and subject to congressional restrictions.
Many Jewish leaders said they were in favor of some travel reform after the Abramoff scandal. Several congressmen, including deposed House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), are accused of taking lavish overseas trips paid for by lobbyists associated with Abramoff, an Orthodox Jew who opened a kosher deli and a religious school in the Washington area.
Abramoff pled guilty earlier this month to defrauding Indian tribes, enticing government officials with bribes and evading taxes.
"I think a total ban on travel, without the ability to look at what's behind the travel, is throwing the baby out with the bath water," said Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.
Some congressional aides have suggested registering trips and how they are funded, or having travel approved by a congressional oversight committee.