Every once in a while most of us get offered a free vacation and most of us are smart enough to know that they are not free — there’s got to be some kind of quid pro quo. Corporate marketing departments simply don’t exist to give things away unless such “gifts” offer a reasonable rate of return.
When Rep. Kevin Yoder stripped off his clothes on the shores of the Sea of Galilee last summer, a few drinks might have helped him shed his inhibitions, or he might have momentarily forgotten he was a Republican, or he might have been thinking “Thank God I’m not in Kansas,” but whatever was going through his mind, it turns out that what got exposed wasn’t his genitals — let’s be honest, Yoder indiscretion hardly compares with Anthony Weiner’s — it was AIPAC: the night flower that thrives in darkness and can’t even tolerate moonlight.
The New York Times reports: The trip was much like any of the hundreds hosted in recent years by a nonprofit offshoot of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a powerful Washington lobby, and the purpose was much the same: to solidify the support of American lawmakers for Israel at a time of Middle East tumult.
For eight expense-paid days, House Republicans visited Israel’s holiest sites, talked foreign policy with its highest officials and dined at its most famous restaurants, including Decks, known for its grilled beef, stunning views of the Sea of Galilee, and now, for an impromptu swim party.
With hundreds of Washington lawmakers having gone to Israel courtesy of the program, the trips have a reputation as being the standard-bearer for foreign Congressional travel. “We call it the Jewish Disneyland trip,” said one pro-Israel advocate in Washington.
But for lawmakers, the attention surrounding last summer’s trip — thanks to reports of a skinny-dipping Kansas lawmaker who was part of the delegation — has cast an unwanted spotlight once again on the practice of private groups paying for foreign travel, a source of frequent criticism in the past.
One of the most famous travel boondoggles — a golf trip to Scotland for members of Congress and staff members, hosted by the lobbyist Jack Abramoff — led Congress in 2007 to tighten restrictions on who could sponsor trips and for how long. But despite the new restrictions, the number of Congressional trips paid for by outside groups has actually increased since 2007, to more than 1,600 from about 1,300, according to Legistorm, a research group that tracks Congressional data. To comply with the new restrictions, many political and lobbying groups have turned to nonprofit groups they set up and finance to host the Congressional trips.
Since 2000, the American Israel Education Foundation has been more prolific than any other in sponsoring overseas trips for members of Congress and their staffs, organizing 733 trips for both Republicans and Democrats at a cost of more than $7 million. Last year, it spent $2 million to sponsor 146 trips, far outpacing a Turkish coalition that ranked second, sponsoring 32 trips.
Last summer, there were so many members of Congress traveling — about 80 — that the education fund sponsored two separate trips. Israeli officials who met with the Congressional delegation that included the swim party said it seemed to include many first-time visitors, who knew little about Israel and appeared a bit naïve about its policies and traditions. Many of them were newcomers in Congress who were elected in 2010 with Tea Party support.
“What was remarkable about that group was most of them were freshmen; it was their first visit in Israel, and they did not know much, but they were very interested,” said one senior Israeli official who met with the delegation and spoke on the condition of anonymity. “I’m used to meeting members of Congress, and usually they’ve been here, we know them from the past.”
Among the donors who have helped to finance the trips is Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate who is a strong Israel supporter and has pledged to spend as much as $100 million to defeat President Obama. A charitable trust operated by Mr. Adelson and his wife gave $1.2 million in 2006 to the American Israel Education Foundation, records show.
The mealy-mouthed New York Times might describe these trips as having the aim of solidifying support for Israel, but let’s be honest: we’re talking about bribery. It doesn’t involve unmarked bills in plain brown envelopes, but no one in Congress is in any doubt about how they are expected to show their thanks for a free vacation to Israel. Take vacations; pay with votes.