WASHINGTON -- Ever since its creation 42 years ago, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, more commonly referred to as "the Jewish lobby" or "the Israeli lobby," has ridden the waves of controversy.
It's still surfing. The latest wave is a ruling by the federal Court of Appeals here that the Federal Election Commission erred in finding in 1992 that AIPAC did not have to disclose campaign-related spending under the federal campaign-finance law because the organization's "major purpose" is not electing candidates.
The "major purpose" test is one means under the law to determine whether an organization is to be considered political in nature and hence subject to federal reporting requirements. Although the acronym AIPAC has led many to assume that the organization is a political-action committee (PAC), it is really a registered lobby, with dues-paying members. Money is spent in campaigns under the guise of educating its members, just as labor unions do.
The appellate court ruling doesn't mean that AIPAC automatically must reveal what it spends in campaigns, but only that the Federal Election Commission must take another look. The commission has 90 days to decide whether to take the matter to the Supreme Court.
If AIPAC is finally judged to be a political organization under the law, it not only would have to report its spending but also limit direct contributions to any candidate to $1,000. Melvin Dow, AIPAC's president, says, however, that the organization does not give directly to any candidate.
The case in question was brought by six individuals critical of the pro-Israel lobby, including former Republican Rep. Paul Findley of Illinois, its most outspoken critic in Congress until he was defeated in 1982 -- as a result of AIPAC money, he contends.
When he was in Congress, Mr. Findley wrote a book entitled "They Dare To Speak Out: People and Institutions Confront Israel's Lobby," and as a lawyer in Jacksonville, Illinois, he continues to voice his criticism. He says the court ruling "may be a break in the dike. AIPAC and other pro-Israel organizations have had a pretty free ride under our political system. This ruling may force the FEC to tell them they will have to say where their money comes from and how they spend it."
"It's a joke"
Of the notion that AIPAC's activities are focused on educating its members about issues relating to Israel, Mr. Findley says: "Of course it's a joke. They use their membership to raise money for their political objectives on Capitol Hill."
Another of those who brought the suit, a New York lawyer named Abdeen Jabara, says: "The FEC has been carrying water for AIPAC in this case. It goes after little fish and lets the big fish get away." Heavy attendance by members of Congress to AIPAC's annual conference, he says, demonstrates its political influence through its spending in campaigns. "It's like bears to honey," he says.
Mr. Dow expresses confidence that under other yardsticks determining the nature of his organization, it will continue to be able to engage in the same activities without having to report to the Federal Election Commission. The fact that it is a membership organization that is issue-oriented, that it communicates only to its own members and is independent of any political party, he says, will be sufficient grounds for the commission to find that AIPAC is not a political organization.
Mr. Jabara says that it is unlikely that the election commission will want to have the case taken to the Supreme Court. With public pressure mounting for campaign finance reform, he suggests, it may seek to kick the matter to Congress, where AIPAC and its foes could then be expected to bring their influence to bear.
In any event, the organization that has lived and survived in controversy seems destined to face more of the same. In a sense, it's a measure of AIPAC's effectiveness that its critics have gone to such pains to have the spotlight of disclosure shined onto it.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 12/11/96