US lawmakers have adopted anti-BDS resolutions while accepting travel gifts to Israel from a pro-Israel lobby.
It’s not coincidental that 24 states and the U.S. Congress have adopted anti-BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) laws and resolutions while lawmakers in those jurisdictions accept free travel to Israel from lobbyists advocating such legislation.
Lawmakers who accept generous travel gifts ignore both real and apparent conflicts of interest.
Massachusetts is a current case in point. Thirteen House and Senate members accepted invitations from the Boston-based Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), a registered lobbying organization, for a free eight-day trip to Israel. While the stated purpose of the “study tour” that departed Boston on December 7 is “to build economic and cultural ties,” past programs have focused primarily on tourism and political indoctrination.
The invited lawmakers should have declined the JCRC’s offer to pay or reimburse their travel expenses for the following reasons.
1. The offered gift travel carried at least the appearance of conflict of interest. The December 2017 trip takes place as lawmakers debate a proposal to penalize individuals and businesses supporting BDS —free-speech-protected civic action to press for Israeli compliance with international law and human rights standards violated by the illegal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
Four of the traveling lawmakers sit on the State Administration and Regulatory Oversight Committee, which has already held a hearing on the bill and will be voting on it in the months ahead. Another House member is chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, where the bill will go next if voted on favorably by the State Administration Committee. All the delegation members may ultimately vote on the bill.
Legislators who accept an expensive travel gift from a lobbying organization under such circumstances impair citizen confidence in the integrity of their elected representatives.
2. An Israel visit offers no or minimal value to Massachusetts. The Israeli political briefings and tourism have little relevance to state lawmakers. Economically, Israel’s connection with the state is modest. It did not even make the top 25 countries as a destination for the state’s exports.
3. An Israel visit sends the wrong political message. Because it lends legitimacy to the Israeli occupation and continuing settlement on Palestinian lands, participation of the state’s elected representatives contradicts the law and justice values of both state and nation.
While the gift travel of appointed officials in Massachusetts must be approved by supervisors, no equivalent requirement exists for elected officials. According to its spokesperson, the State Ethics Commission does not review conflict of interest issues or even the content in required disclosure forms.
Under current Commission rules, House or Senate members who wish to accept a free trip from a registered lobbying organization that have bills pending before the Legislature need only submit a written declaration that the trip fulfills a “legitimate public purpose.”
To leave the balancing of public purpose and conflict of interest to the individual lawmaker does disservice to both lawmaker and citizens. Massachusetts and other states with similar limitations deserve a better process to help their legislators avoid future conflicts of interest.
Here are two modest steps that could help:
1. Limit application of the Ethics Commission’s “legitimate public purpose” (LPP) exception. The Commission should administratively rule (or the Legislature should provide by law) that the LPP exception is not available when the organization that pays for the travel is registered as a lobbying organization and has within a 12-month period prior to the trip engaged in one or more acts of legislative lobbying; and
2. Require authoritative third party oversight. It is often difficult for an individual legislator to see possible conflicts when offered an expensive overseas trip. If however the State Attorney General or State Auditor were required to review applications for approval of gifted or reimbursed travel by legislators, most conflict situations could be avoided.
By staying home from future JCRC-offered trips, invited legislators will avoid possible embarrassment. By tweaking the LPP exception, lawmakers can avoid conflicts and the appearance of conflicts.