On Sunday, February 10th, freshman Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota’s 5th Congressional district sparked a major controversy with tweets about AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Kevin McCarthy was fiercely defending U.S. support for Israel, and Rep. Omar tweeted that “It’s all about the Benjamins baby,” suggesting that his vehement support for Israel was a result of campaign donations. Connecting Israeli money and U.S. policy referenced a long-running facet of anti-Semitism, suggesting that Jewish money is the driving force behind the strength of the U.S.-Israel alliance. Democrats and Republicans alike criticized her comment, which she later deleted.
Then, on March 1st, Rep. Omar theorized that lawmakers who have staunchly pro-Israel policies have “allegiance to a foreign country.” That tweet was later deleted too.
Omar received even more criticism. Rep. Eliot Engel, fellow Democrat and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (which Omar is a part of), called her remark a “vile anti-Semitic slur.” A number of other lawmakers from both sides of the aisle also criticised her remarks.
Depending on your opinion, Omar’s comments are controversial at best and bigoted at worst. They unintentionally reference an ugly thread of anti-Semitism – the conspiracy that Jewish money bank rolls campaigns and is the major fuel behind the bipartisan pro-Israel stance in Congress. However, is she inaccurate? Do AIPAC and other foreign lobbying groups actually have enough influence in our government and campaigns so that policy favors their interests?
I don’t believe that Rep. Omar is anti-Semitic. She is certainly critical of Israel, and feels that some support for Israel comes from campaign financing. Omar has merely suggested that we need to take a look at the influence of money in politics, and how it impacts our country’s policies.
On their official website, AIPAC states that the organization “urges all members of Congress to support Israel through foreign aid, government partnerships, joint anti-terrorism efforts and the promotion of a negotiated two-state solution—a Jewish state of Israel and a demilitarized Palestinian state.” AIPAC doesn’t endorse candidates for office and isn’t a PAC, so the organization doesn’t directly donate money to political campaigns. However, AIPAC’s 100,000 members have tremendous influence with legislators across the country. In their own words, the organization’s members “work with their elected officials and AIPAC staff to strengthen the bonds between the United States and the Jewish state… and help educate [legislators] about the importance of U.S.-Israel ties.” In addition, AIPAC has spent money lobbying Congress for years. In 2018, the organization spent $3,518,028 to lobby for and against certain legislation and also lobbied the Department of Homeland Security. AIPAC lobbied for legislation that sought to appropriate foreign aid to Israel, harmed Iran economically, targeted the anti-Israel militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah, and more. AIPAC also opposed boycotts of Israel and companies that do business with Israel.
AIPAC isn’t the only foreign organization that influences legislation in the United States. Saudi Arabia, another key American ally in the Middle East, flexes their lobbying muscles regularly. Their foreign agents, political operatives, firms, and lobbyists spent $1.6 million in the midterm elections by October 23, 2018, and affiliated PACs spent another $1.1 million in the midterm cycle. This spending goes relatively unnoticed and certainly is not as prominent as comments such as these:
This comment came after the president was asked about the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. In addition, Saudi dollars help fund technology companies, foreign policy think tanks, and even top universities such as Harvard and Georgetown. The exact numbers are exaggerated, but the sentiment is clear: Saudi money drives U.S. policy, including arms deals. This relationship has arguably affected how America deals with foreign policy in the region and has been made clear by Trump’s and other’s remarks after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. The Washington Post contributor and prominent Saudi adviser was murdered and then brutally dismembered by a “rogue intelligence officer,” according to Saudi officials. In addition to Trump’s emphasis on the commercial relationship, the geopolitical one is just as crucial. When asked about the death of Khashoggi, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo noted that “We have a long, strategic relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” He’s not wrong – the kingdom is a long-standing U.S. ally and has supported our goals in the region.
However, campaign contributions do have an outsized influence on how legislators vote. Last year, the Senate voted to advance a resolution to end U.S. support for Saudi intervention in Yemen’s civil war. Thirty senators who voted against the resolution received campaign donations from Saudi-connected lobbying firms. Even more distressing is the fact that Saudi lobbyists met with four Senators on the day of the vote: Mike Crapo, John Boozman, Richard Burr, and Tim Scott.
Ilhan Omar’s comments, while they could have been worded to be less insensitive, have brought an important conversation back to the forefront of American politics. During the 2016 presidential elections, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump all pushed for campaign finance reform, with Trump calling out his Republican primary opponents for being too subservient to their major campaign donors. When Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, two polar opposites politically, both call for campaign finance reform, the system likely needs reform.
There are multiple financial loopholes that allow foreign nationals to make donations without revealing their identity. While technically illegal, foreign actors can hide behind shell companies when making donations to American politicians. Since LLCs don’t have to disclose the sources of their funding, foreigners and foreign governments can covertly gain influence in American politics. The most egregious attempt to gain power by a foreign entity came in 1996, when millions of dollar were funneled to the DNC from donors connected to China’s communist regime. Foreign influence doesn’t have to come from direct campaign donations either – Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign was dogged by foreign donations to her family’s charity, the Clinton Foundation. The Saudi government donated over $10 million, the son-in-law of a Ukrainian president accused of corruption and murdering journalists also contributed more than $10 million, and a Lebanese-Nigerian businessman donated over $5 million.
Money will undoubtedly always be a part of politics. With the cost of campaigning, especially in today’s media market, it would be nearly impossible to completely divest money from our political system. However, the U.S. can take steps to curtail the influence of foreign and unknown actors in our campaigns. In the 2016 presidential election cycle, secret money ended up being the source of two-thirds of political advertising through January. Expanding disclosure requirements would push candidates to hesitate when accepting donations from foreign nationals and governments. And, voters would become aware of where a candidate’s funding is coming from, making it easier to discern why their elected officials are making the decisions that they are.
Maybe Ilhan Omar is right. It certainly seems that “It’s all about the Benjamins baby.”