Michael Sweeney | United States
On Thursday, Democratic freshman Congressman Max Rose of New York apologized for remarks made a few weeks ago by Representative Ilhan Omar, Democrat of Minnesota. Her controversial comments were widely interpreted in the media as antisemitic. As a result, members of Democratic party leadership began the process this week of seeking a primary challenger against Omar, only months into her first term.
Suggestions of dual loyalties on the basis of race are seriously problematic, making a fallacious connection between one’s ethnicity and one’s beliefs. The point Rep. Omar made in her statements, however, was not about race or religion, but about money and special interests. The dual loyalty Omar sees is rampant in Congress, “hypnotizing” even the most progressive candidates with offers of money in exchange for influence. As she aptly put it: in Congress “It’s all about the Benjamins.”
The Influence of Pro-Israel Lobbying
Rep Omar’s comments focused on the influence of AIPAC, but they apply to pretty much every special interest group in Washington. While AIPAC spends most of its money lobbying members of Congress, about 3.5 million dollars in 2018, there are numerous pro-Israel groups which donate money directly to candidates with Israel-friendly political leanings. In 2018 these groups spent as much as 14.5 million dollars in donations to half of Congress, with dark money contributions through super PACs likely far exceeding that. Because Israel-advocacy is a single-issue interest, these numbers don’t begin to compare to those reached by various private donors, but they do mean pro-Israel groups outspent one famous boogeyman of the left — the NRA.
Virtually no one on the Democratic side of the aisle bats an eye at the idea that NRA money is used to buy the votes of members of Congress on the gun control issue. This is despite the fact that NRA spending amounts to only about 4 million dollars in direct contributions to congressional candidates. The entire gun rights movement contributed about 12.6 million dollars last year to members of Congress, notably less than was spent by pro-Israel groups on congressional campaigns. The remote possibility of dual loyalty to the firearms industry in Congress can kickstart movements, but even the mention of dual loyalty to Israel is silenced by the Washington establishment as antisemitic.
At a time when bills intended to restrict the right of Americans and American companies to divest of Israeli companies make it to the Senate floor, Israeli and pro-Israel influence in Congress is basically flaunted publicly, while criticism of it is almost universally condemned. This is no different from the influence of the NRA, and it is no less problematic for a healthy democracy.
The Democratic Party’s abandonment of Rep. Omar demonstrates the kind of relationship that exists between pro-Israel lobbying and fundraising organizations and Congress. More troubling, however, is the fact that money’s influence on Capitol Hill is more powerful than the influence of the average American voter. Our representatives on both sides of the aisle are more interested in securing funds for their re-election than actually governing in the interest of the American people.
Repercussions of Dark Money and Dual Loyalties
Voices like Ilhan Omar’s are important in the sense that they shake up the status quo and force the public to reconsider what they know. These voices should be protected from the influence of campaign contributions and dark money which is currently threatening Omar’s career and her capacity to represent the interests of her constituents. What the Democratic establishment’s treatment of Omar really exposes is the need for meaningful campaign finance reform and a shift to publicly funded elections. Changing the way members of Congress think about money is essential to securing our democracy against special interests and subtle forms of corruption. Dual loyalty, whether to the gun lobby, the pharmaceutical industry, the fossil fuel industry, or Israel, is a serious threat to the functioning of our democracy, and it should be highlighted in the media. This, despite the apologies of her fellow members of Congress, is exactly what Ilhan Omar is doing.
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