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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October 1989, Page 20, 21


Congress Reconvenes

By Dennis Wamsted

Budgetary issues, including several with important ramifications for US Middle East policy, are likely to dominate the congressional calendar for the remainder of the first session of the 101st Congress, particularly since House and Senate leaders hope to adjourn for the year by early November.

At the top of the congressional action list are the 13 major appropriations bills, which Senate and House Democratic leaders had vowed to complete by the beginning of the new fiscal year on October 1.

Although the House had completed action before its summer recess on all 13 spending bills, including the foreign aid package, the Senate had only passed four at that point. If the Senate is unable to complete action on all of those bills before October, or if the two chambers are unable to iron out an agreement during the ensuing conferences, Congress will be forced to resort to a short-term continuing resolution to maintain funding for key programs.

One likely candidate for inclusion in a continuing resolution is funding for the US foreign aid program, since the Senate Appropriations Foreign Operations Subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over the foreign aid program in the Senate, had not even begun working on its version of the bill (known as "marking-up") at press time.

Another congressional "must" this fall will be to increase the government's debt limit to enable the US Treasury to continue borrowing money to meet its funding obligations. Before Congress recessed for its traditional August vacation, the House and Senate passed a short-term extension, raising the debt limit by $70 billion to $2.87 trillion. But this new ceiling will be hit by the end of October, forcing Congress to reconsider the issue before adjourning in November.

Because of its must-pass nature, legislators often move to add less popular and/or more controversial measures to the debt ceiling bill. Similar attempts are likely this fall.

For example, even though no such plans have been publicly announced, if Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) or another opponent of the US-PLO dialogue wants to try again to curtail those discussions, adding an amendment to the debt ceiling measure would be the most likely avenue.

Campaign Finance Reform, Bush Style

Notwithstanding the imposing schedule facing Congress, it is possible that an effort, spurred by President Bush, will be made this fall to reform the notorious congressional campaign finance system. The current system, which was implemented in the years after the Watergate scandal, was designed to curb the influence of wealthy contributors and to ensure that smaller donors would still be solicited by political candidates.

The system, increasingly, is being manipulated by small, well-organized groups such as the pro-Israel lobby to sway the outcome of targeted elections through the use of funds raised by political action committees (PACs). Most notably, out-of-state pro-Israel PAC money is credited with playing the decisive role in the electoral defeats of former Representative Paul Findley (R-IL) and former Senator Charles Percy (R-IL)-men who favored an evenhanded US approach to the Mideast conflict. It is also likely that carefully targeted pro-Israel PAC funds played a key role in the successful Democratic effort to regain control of the Senate in the 1986 election campaign.

The need for systematic reforms has been raised repeatedly in the past several years, but little progress has been made, largely, because of congressional inertia and administration indifference. But now, because of the strong backing of President Bush, the scales may have tipped in favor of reform. In similar fashion, Bush's endorsement of a comprehensive revision of the Clean Air Act is credited by many with breaking the 10-year-long deadlock that has prevented congressional action on that contentious issue.

The president's proposal is relatively straight-forward, and certain to be opposed, albeit quietly, by the pro-Israel community because a number of its provisions would significantly reduce the influence wielded by the 80 or so active pro-Israel PACs. The proposal would eliminate corporate, union and trade association PACs entirely, and it would halve the contribution limits of non-connected PACs, such as the pro-Israel groups, from $5,000 to $2,500 per election. At the same time, the proposal would more than double the amount of money that the two parties could spend in support of candidates nationwide. Other features of the president's plan include:

  • Eliminating transfers of funds between campaign committees established by elected federal officials;
  • Banning the practice of "bundling" individual contribution by organizations other than official political party committees;
  • Adding disclaimers for advertising funded by persons other than the candidates;
  • Requiring candidates and members of Congress to empty their campaign chests at the end of each election cycle;
  • Prohibiting members of Congress from converting campaign funds to personal use;
  • Banning the use of "franked" mail for unsolicited mailings;
  • Increasing disclosure requirements for "soft money."

Two of these provisions, those concerning bundled contributions and the use of soft money, would directly affect the pro-Israel community, which has adopted both means in recent years to funnel contributions to favored candidates. Soft money enables wealthy individuals to bypass the existing federal limit of $25,000 per person per year for contributions to federal candidates and committees by giving the money to state parties. These state organizations then disperse the money to encourage voter turnout and other vote-getting initiatives. Bundling is used by the pro-Israel community to ensure that individual contributions are visible to candidates. But the practice is also used in a more insidious fashion, where the contributors write a check for a certain amount of money but intentionally leave the payee line blank. The check is then sent to a third party, often connected to a pro-Israel PAC, who then directs the check to the "correct" candidate.

A Tale Of Two Senators

Congressman routinely take to the floor of the House and Senate to criticize foreign governments, even such close allies as the French, British and Japanese, for pursuing policies at odds with those favored by the US. That is, congressman routinely criticize every foreign government save one; for when questions concerning Israeli government actions arise, the congressional silence is deafening. Indeed, US politicians have virtually never been willing to criticize Israeli government actions publicly-largely out of fear of the highly organized and well-financed pro-Israel lobby.

However, this public reticence has been eroding steadily during the past two years, as US politicans and citizens alike have grown increasingly uneasy over Israel's actions in seeking to quash the Palestinian intifada in the occupied territories. And now, as a result of Senate Minority leader Robert Dole's (R-KS) fusillade against the Israeli actions in Lebanon which precipitated this summer's long hostage crisis, it may be that Israel's longstanding congressional immunity is over.

Sen. Dole, a consistent supporter of Israel in years past, bluntly warned the Israeli government in an emotional speech delivered on the Senate floor that Congress and the administration would no longer "apologize for Israeli actions" when they endangered American lives. "I hope the Israelis will take another look at some of their actions, which they must know in advance will endanger American lives," the Kansas Republican said. "We cannot apologize for Israeli actions in this country when it endangers the lives of Americans in some faroff country, and perhaps a little more responsibility on the part of the Israelis one of these days would be refreshing."

Beyond the speech, which was remarkable in and of itself, was the reaction, or lack thereof, by Dole's colleagues. Although the speech was criticized by several congressmen, the minority leader's comments went largely unchallenged. In fact, Dole's bluntness was privately hailed by a number of his colleagues, according to other published reports. It may be that Israel's immunity from congressional criticism has ended.

Sen. Dole's criticism of Israel contrasts sharply with the attitude of freshman senator Connie Mack. The Florida Republican, who won a bitterly contested race against former Rep. Buddy MacKay (D-FL) in the 1988 elections, was one of the few senators who strongly supported Sen. Jesse Helms' (R-NC) anti-PLO proposal this past summer. (See the September 1989 Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, for further details on the Helms proposal.)

Mack, who now serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, voiced strong support for the Helms amendment in a floor speech in late July. "This amendment is consistent with the PLO Commitments Compliance Act of 1989, which I offered as an amendment to the bill in Foreign Relations Committee. . .Both try to make this policy [talking to the PLO] consistent with our support for the freedom and security of our closest ally in the region, Israel, and our opposition to terrorism wherever it may occur."

Earlier, in a letter to Secretary of State James Baker, Mack denounced the US dialogue with the PLO. The administration should put a hold on any future meetings, he wrote, and permit Congress to review the situation. "It is incomprehensible to me that the administration would escalate its contacts with the PLO without any consultations with Congress or any improvement in PLO behavior," wrote Mack, who received more than $32,500 from pro-Israel political action committees (PACs) to help defray the cost of his 1988 Senate campaign. His opponent, MacKay, received just $19,000.

Dennis J. Wamsted is a free-lance writer specializing in Middle East affairs and the US Congress.

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