Commentary Magazine


Topic: Jack Abramoff

The Value of Congressional Trips Abroad

The well-deserved furor over Todd Akin’s boneheaded comments has been diverting attention from another tempest involving a GOP congressman going skinny-dipping in the Sea of Galilee while on a visit to Israel organized by an offshoot of AIPAC. The New York Times, among other MSM outlets, appears eager to turn the entire trip into a “scandal”–see for example this editorial disguised as a news article. It discusses the Israel outing in the context of “famous travel boondoggles” such as the Scotland golfing trip arranged by influence-peddler Jack Abramoff. Yet by all accounts the Israel trips organized by AIPAC are filled with substantive policy meetings. Even if the congressmen spent all their time going to tourist attracts such as the Sea of Galilee and Dead Sea, however, I would still be all in favor of such trips.

Does anyone seriously think that members of Congress in general, and members of the House in particular, are too worldly, sophisticated, and cosmopolitan? Au contraire. Many of them don’t even own a passport when elected. That’s hardly surprising since the bulk of them come from local politics–not from the Foreign Service or, for that matter, the armed forces. But lack of personal familiarity with the world beyond America’s shores leaves them ill-prepared to vote on national security matters ranging from foreign operations and defense budgets to treaty ratifications and authorizations for the use of military force. This is a major problem and allowing nonprofits to fund travel for members of Congress helps to alleviate it. Banning these trips will do nothing to elevate congressional ethics. It will do much to elevate congressional ignorance.

The well-deserved furor over Todd Akin’s boneheaded comments has been diverting attention from another tempest involving a GOP congressman going skinny-dipping in the Sea of Galilee while on a visit to Israel organized by an offshoot of AIPAC. The New York Times, among other MSM outlets, appears eager to turn the entire trip into a “scandal”–see for example this editorial disguised as a news article. It discusses the Israel outing in the context of “famous travel boondoggles” such as the Scotland golfing trip arranged by influence-peddler Jack Abramoff. Yet by all accounts the Israel trips organized by AIPAC are filled with substantive policy meetings. Even if the congressmen spent all their time going to tourist attracts such as the Sea of Galilee and Dead Sea, however, I would still be all in favor of such trips.

Does anyone seriously think that members of Congress in general, and members of the House in particular, are too worldly, sophisticated, and cosmopolitan? Au contraire. Many of them don’t even own a passport when elected. That’s hardly surprising since the bulk of them come from local politics–not from the Foreign Service or, for that matter, the armed forces. But lack of personal familiarity with the world beyond America’s shores leaves them ill-prepared to vote on national security matters ranging from foreign operations and defense budgets to treaty ratifications and authorizations for the use of military force. This is a major problem and allowing nonprofits to fund travel for members of Congress helps to alleviate it. Banning these trips will do nothing to elevate congressional ethics. It will do much to elevate congressional ignorance.

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Rangel, Pelosi, and the Independent Vote

Liberals are jumpy these days. ObamaCare is teetering on the brink of collapse. The economy is languishing. And the president seems to have lost credibility with the voters and many within his own party. Then along comes the Charlie Rangel fiasco, and more thoughtful Democrats know enough to be panicky. Peter Beinart explains:

To understand why the Rangel scandals are so dangerous for Democrats, you need to understand something about midterm landslides: They’re usually composed of three parts. First, the other party’s activists are highly motivated. Second, your own activists are highly unmotivated. Third, independents want to burn Washington to the ground.

Beinart seems to think passing health-care reform will help keep Obama’s activists motivated, but he concedes that the independents are the real worry, and that’s where Rangel comes in:

Independents are the most fickle, the most cynical, and the least ideological people in the American electorate. When they’re unhappy with the state of the country, they tend to stampede the party in power—less because they disagree on the issues than because they decide that the folks running government must be malevolent and corrupt. In Washington, congressmen violate ethics rules all the time. But when independents get in one of their sour moods, these infractions become matches on dry tinder. In 1994, the scandals concerning [former Speaker Dan] Rostenkowski and the House bank helped sweep the Gingrichites into power. In 2006, according to exit polls, the scandals surrounding mega-lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Rep. Mark Foley did more to lose the GOP control of Congress than did the Iraq war. Pelosi became speaker, in fact, by running against the GOP’s “culture of corruption” and promising the “most ethical Congress in history.”

As Beinart notes, some Democrats are pleading for Pelosi to toss Rangel overboard, but so far she’s not listening. That stubborn defiance is surely not going to sit well with those ready-to-stampede independents, who’ve had enough of self-dealing, backroom bargains and Beltway arrogance.

But if Beinart is right about the independents’ critical role, then perhaps he should reconsider that advice about passing health care. The activists might be mollified, but passing a bill hated by the electorate and especially independents increasingly concerned with the ongoing fiscal train wreck seems designed to make those independents even madder and more determined to “throw the bums out.”

So if Democrats want to keep the stampede at bay, they might bag Rangel and ObamaCare. But alas, Pelosi for now is determined to do the opposite. So keep an eye out for the thundering herd of independents — they seem poised to trample the Democrats.

Liberals are jumpy these days. ObamaCare is teetering on the brink of collapse. The economy is languishing. And the president seems to have lost credibility with the voters and many within his own party. Then along comes the Charlie Rangel fiasco, and more thoughtful Democrats know enough to be panicky. Peter Beinart explains:

To understand why the Rangel scandals are so dangerous for Democrats, you need to understand something about midterm landslides: They’re usually composed of three parts. First, the other party’s activists are highly motivated. Second, your own activists are highly unmotivated. Third, independents want to burn Washington to the ground.

Beinart seems to think passing health-care reform will help keep Obama’s activists motivated, but he concedes that the independents are the real worry, and that’s where Rangel comes in:

Independents are the most fickle, the most cynical, and the least ideological people in the American electorate. When they’re unhappy with the state of the country, they tend to stampede the party in power—less because they disagree on the issues than because they decide that the folks running government must be malevolent and corrupt. In Washington, congressmen violate ethics rules all the time. But when independents get in one of their sour moods, these infractions become matches on dry tinder. In 1994, the scandals concerning [former Speaker Dan] Rostenkowski and the House bank helped sweep the Gingrichites into power. In 2006, according to exit polls, the scandals surrounding mega-lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Rep. Mark Foley did more to lose the GOP control of Congress than did the Iraq war. Pelosi became speaker, in fact, by running against the GOP’s “culture of corruption” and promising the “most ethical Congress in history.”

As Beinart notes, some Democrats are pleading for Pelosi to toss Rangel overboard, but so far she’s not listening. That stubborn defiance is surely not going to sit well with those ready-to-stampede independents, who’ve had enough of self-dealing, backroom bargains and Beltway arrogance.

But if Beinart is right about the independents’ critical role, then perhaps he should reconsider that advice about passing health care. The activists might be mollified, but passing a bill hated by the electorate and especially independents increasingly concerned with the ongoing fiscal train wreck seems designed to make those independents even madder and more determined to “throw the bums out.”

So if Democrats want to keep the stampede at bay, they might bag Rangel and ObamaCare. But alas, Pelosi for now is determined to do the opposite. So keep an eye out for the thundering herd of independents — they seem poised to trample the Democrats.

Read Less