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Major loophole in Democrats' ethics bill will benefit controversial lobbying groups

Brian Beutler
Published: Tuesday January 9, 2007
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Democrats’ own Rules Commmittee chair criticizes exemption, bill architecture

WASHINGTON -- A major loophole in the Democrats' recently unveiled ethics package will allow non-profit arms of controversial lobbying organizations to fund travel excursions for members of Congress, RAW STORY has discovered.

Though tasked with authoring the legislation, Rules Committee Chair Louise Slaughter (D-NY) said she disagreed with the exemption in an exclusive interview.

"I would've done it straight out," Slaughter said, noting that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the Aspen Institute are exempt from many of its harshest restrictions.

Slaughter didn’t say who, if anyone, had pushed for the exemption. As chair, the New York Democrat was responsible for pulling together the ethics reform package, which was hammered out between members of the Democratic caucus.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) declined to comment.

Washington ethics watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington – a nonprofit that has loudly decried Republican ethics scandals and enforcement – also declined to comment.

The Aspen Institute, which does not technically employ lobbyists, describes itself as an organization that runs "seminars, policy programs, conferences and leadership development initiatives" intended "to promote nonpartisan inquiry and an appreciation for timeless values." The group concentrates on a wide range of public policies, but its foreign policy and weapons control arm — known as the "Aspen Strategy Group" — have included high-profile and arguably partisan fellows including Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, former Vice President Al Gore Clinton Secretary of State Madeline Albright, and former New York Times reporter Judith Miller.

However, the group does pay for members to attend what spokesman Jim Spiegelman described as, “intensive, multi-day informational discussions on mostly foreign policy issues, wherein the institute takes “members of congress together on a trip and focuses on a given subject whether it’s the international environment, or non-proliferation or another [foreign policy] topic.”

AIPAC, on the other hand, is widely believed to be the most powerful lobbying organization in Washington, and it has used its might, some say, to help end the political careers of several members of congress who had been critical of Israel including Cynthia McKinney (D-GA) and Earl Hilliard (D-AL). It was recently implicated in an espionage scandal involving Pentagon analyst Larry Franklin who was suspected of passing sensitive legislation to Israel through contacts in AIPAC. It has also mobilized millions of dollars to fund non-violent defense technologies and has attempted to disrupt activities of militant groups like Hezbollah and Hamas.

AIPAC declined to comment on being singled out by Slaughter, but spokesman Josh Block described the educational trips to Israel as “substantive, educational, and valuable.” He also pointed out that AIPAC had testified before congress last year on the issue of privately funded travel.

In that testimony, Bradley Gordon, AIPAC’s director for policy and governmental affairs, recommended that there “be more disclosure to the Ethics Committee both in advance and after the trip. A well-defined preapproval process is essential. We also think it is important to publicly disclose information about the trip after the trip is complete.”

Scores of 501(c)(3) organizations are headquartered in Washington, and many serve as platforms for advocating their causes. The Save Darfur Coalition and Human Rights Campaign each maintain 501(c)(3) status.

AIPAC singled out

Slaughter also detailed how she will ensure that the new rules are widely enforced and how as-yet-undetermined provisions will be strong enough to forbid unethical conduct.

The package is being touted as a watershed reform, intended to stem the corrupting influence of lobbyists that plagued the 109th Congress and which many critics say cost Republicans control of the legislature.

However, the rules do little to sever ties between members of Congress and political action committees (PACs) and non-profits, many of which are affiliated with the lobbying offices that are the targets of the new restrictions. They also allow "institutions of higher education," as defined by the Higher Education Act of 1965, to repay the House for expenses incurred by members traveling under their auspices.

A source close to the Rules Committee indicated that though Slaughter would prefer more restrictive measures, the rules require "a unanimous vote in our caucus" and a majority on the floor of the House.

According to an AIPAC spokesperson, AIPAC benefits from these exemptions because it is affiliated with a 501(c)(3) organization called the American Israel Education Foundation (AIEF), which funds educational trips for private citizens and public officials. Organizations with that designation do not conduct lobbying directly and therefore are allowed to fund travel for members. According to a study by the Center for Public Integrity (CPI), the group spent nearly one-million dollars on congressional travel from January 2000 through mid-2005. The Aspen Institute, on the other hand spent more than $3.5 million on member travel during the same period. According to the CPI “no other sponsor’s spending came close.”

AIPAC, through AIEF, also pays for educational trips for journalists, though the group does not ask reporters to write about their experiences. Jacob Weisberg, the editor of the online magazine Slate, recently disclosed — in a story defending President Bush against charges of complicity in last summer’s Israel-Lebanon war — that he’d traveled to Israel with AIPAC. Slate is owned by the Washington Post Company.

Ethics panel details still unknown

A number of other provisions contained within the new rules will hinge on the activities of the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct (more generally known as the Ethics Committee) and on future campaign finance reform efforts.

Yet to be finalized are guidelines governing member spending. Those guidelines will be written by the Ethics Committee and will be based upon the "connection between a trip and official duties," "the reasonableness of an amount spent by a sponsor," [the] relationship between an event and an officially connected purpose," and "[the] relationship between a source of funding and an event."

Slaughter said she will not accept any guidelines from the Ethics Committee that do not clearly and strictly limit those expenditures.

"I won't allow it," Slaughter said. "I don't imagine that there will be a problem."

When asked by RAW STORY about the strength of the guidelines, an aide close to the ethics committee said that they were likely to be "not tough but transparent."

Citing recent ethical imbroglios that went largely unpunished, Slaughter indicated that she ultimately would like to see the Ethics Committee's role overseeing the activities of members taken over by an independent commission.

"I think after Foley and, now, Weldon, we need a bipartisan panel of retired federal judges to eventually oversee the congress. It's just too difficult for them to oversee themselves."

In December, the Ethics Committee released a report that was highly critical of House Republican Leadership actions before, during, and after the Mark Foley page scandal broke out, but called for very few punitive measures against the members involved.

This week's ruling by the Ethics Committee, that Rep. Tom Feeney (R-FL) and outgoing Rep. Curt Weldon (R-PA) had taken inappropriately funded travel excursions, resulted in both members agreeing to reimburse the cost of their trips.

Feeney will pay the treasury over $5000 for a trip he took in 2003 that was sponsored by disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Weldon will repay his sponsors — who were not named — for the entire cost of his trip.

The rules package amends the house rules of the 109th Congress in ways that specifically forbid the types of junkets and hiring practices perpetrated by former Rep. Tom Delay (R-TX) and influence peddler Jack Abramoff, who was recently sentenced to over five years in prison for acts of fraud committed in his capacity as a lobbyist.

One source noted, though, that the problem with the old rules was not that they allowed unethical conduct, but that under the watch of the Republican leadership they were never routinely enforced.

Echoing that concern, ethics watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics applauded the bill but cautioned that its effectiveness will depend on oversight.

"The new Democratic leadership deserves credit for introducing legislation that tackles the ethics issues that plagued the last Congress," said CREW executive director Melanie Sloan in a statement.

"Enforcement is the key to ethics reform,” she added. “Congress must create an independent ethics oversight body, such as an Office of Public Integrity, to restore public confidence in Congress."

Raw Story reporter Michael Roston contributed reporting for this article.