House members travel to Israel, courtesy of AIPAC lobby, not taxpayers

August 9, 2011

A record 81 House members, about a fifth of the chamber, are spending a week in Israel this month, courtesy of a foundation set up by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobby.

It’s apparently the largest number of lawmakers in the 20 years or so that these trips have been undertaken. They are run every other August in nonelection years. A group of 26 Democrats — the senior member is House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) — is already there.

And 55 Republican members , traveling in two groups, will take week-long jaunts to the Holy Land. About 47 of them are freshmen — that’s half of the new Republicans and, according to the Jerusalem Post, it will be the first trip to the country for many of them. And probably ditto for many of their spouses and staffers.

The first GOP group’s senior member is House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.). The second group’s senior traveler is House Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), who’s fresh off a fine tour of Europe last month to promote the legacy of former president Ronald Reagan.

We know what you’re thinking: Who in his right mind would go to Israel in August? It’s in the 90s in Tel Aviv, even mid-80s in the hills of Jerusalem. And the Negev and Dead Sea? Unspeakably dreadful.

In addition, because it’s not an official congressional trip paid for by taxpayers, there will be no military jet, no taking off when you feel like it, no landing in military airports. That’s part of the reason, in today’s parlance, it’s downgraded to only an AA jaunt, not AAA.

Still, the excursion includes a round-trip flight in business class for lawmakers and their spouses (that alone is worth about $8,000), fine hotels and meals, side trips, and transportation and guides.

Unlike a proper congressional trip, we’re told that the AIPAC foundation “runs [the members] pretty good.”

There will be breakfast speakers, dinner speakers, Q&A’s with U.S. Embassy folks and Israeli media. There will be appearances by government leaders, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (ask him about those recent demonstrations) and President Shimon Peres, as well as by opposition leaders. The schedule is packed from morning to late at night.

But wait. It’ll be okay. Judging from past trips — they’re not giving out the schedule for security reasons — the travelers will get a walking tour of the Old City and the Western Wall, plus a tour of the city, trips to Masada and the Dead Sea, the Holocaust Memorial, a trip north to the Golan Heights and to the border with Lebanon. There will be a couple of days to hang out in Tel Aviv — Miami on the Mediterranean.

At some point, the group will head to the West Bank to chat with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and other leaders. No Hamas folks are invited.

Best of all, unlike codels, these are segregated by party — we’re told the members prefer that. Because there is no need for bipartisan cover to justify a taxpayer-funded jaunt, you won’t need to pretend to like someone from across the aisle.

The U.S. Embassy, oft-beleaguered by congressional trips, won’t need to coordinate logistics. The foundation does that. Still, a former diplomat noted, “The embassy will extend whatever assistance is needed” by the lawmakers — such as security for the trip to Ramallah. “We know who pays for our budget.”

All-clear (out)

Got this e-mail the other day.

From: US Capitol Police

Sent: Monday, August 08, 2011 4:59 PM

To: All House Staff

Subject: ALERTUS System Malfunction

Despite the activation of the ALERTUS system, the U.S. Capitol Police are not evacuating any buildings at this time. The system is experiencing a malfunction that is being addressed at this time.

Glad everything’s working smoothly. Hey! Notice what time of day the evacuation alert went off?

From Dawn to Twilight Zone

Sometimes it’s not easy for people to understand just what, after more than eight years, the United States is doing in Iraq as it winds down from 46,000 to maybe no troops by the end of the year.

At a news conference last week in Baghdad by Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a media packet included a glossy brochure explaining, in just a little more than 100 words, precisely what Operation New Dawn — the year-old exit strategy — is all about.

The brochure, forwarded from Baghdad by our colleague Ed O’Keefe, sums up the current strategy, which last year replaced the original Operation Iraqi Freedom, in four words: “Build, Partner, Strengthen, Pressure.”

The idea is to “build Iraq’s civil capacity by providing a secure environment” and for the military to “Partner with the embassy” to hand things over to the Iraqis “using a whole-of-government approach” (not to be confused with a part-of-government approach). Then we “strengthen the Iraqi security forces” and keep the heat on “extremist networks” through joint counterterrorism operations.

Simple as that. But after more than a year, seems “dawn” has got to be getting closer to high noon or even sunset, so maybe it’s time for a new slogan, such as Operation Outta There.

Besides, last we checked, there were maybe 90 public affairs folks in Iraq — a larger contingent by a factor of maybe 10 than the total number of Western reporters. So putting out new brochures will help keep the PAOs — or some consultants — busy.

Moving on

Jake Siewert, the affable former Clinton press secretary who wound up serving as a confidant to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and as his unofficial consigliere on dealing with the media, is heading back to New York this week.

Unlike his boss, the highly regarded Siewert, a former top executive with Alcoa who returned to Washington in June 2009, seemed to have a natural affinity for the back-and-forth with reporters. As with any flack, he would push the good news and spin the bad news, but he was always transparent about what he was selling — and ultimately effective.

Follow In the Loop on Twitter: @AlKamenWP.

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993.
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