The snappy acronym AIPAC has confused as often as not. Since it was formed in the 1950s, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has been an enormously effective lobbying organization devoted to the support of Israel. AIPAC is not a political action committee. It does not contribute to political candidates.
This month, AIPAC announced that it will begin doing what many people thought it was doing all along: It is formalizing the process of creating a PAC and a super PAC. The AIPAC PAC will be able to contribute up to $5,000 to chosen candidates. AIPAC’s as-yet unnamed super PAC (also known as an “independent expenditure-only political action committee”) will be able to spend an unlimited amount of money on campaigns — for things like ads — but may not coordinate those expenditures directly with candidates or contribute to campaigns or political parties.
AIPAC will retain its 501 (c) 4 tax exempt status, which allows it to engage in political campaign activities (other than direct contributions) as long as politics is not the organization’s main endeavor. Contributions to a 501 (c) 4 organization are not deductible as charitable contributions, since such organizations engage in lobbying and are established to affect the political process.
What AIPAC refers to as its “new tools” will enable the organization to expand the pursuit of its goal of bipartisan support for Israel.
As AIPAC updates its structure and operations, we suggest that it take a fresh look at one of its standing “rules.” Known as the “Friendly Incumbent Rule,” it is AIPAC’s practice to avoid doing anything overt to jeopardize the reelection of an incumbent who is an established friend of Israel. The logic for the rule was simple: A friend who supports the U.S.-Israel relationship is a valued friend, and friendly incumbents deserve allegiance.
Sometimes, observance of the rule leads to awkward results. A classic example was AIPAC’s support for Republican Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. of Connecticut – a long-standing friend — even when he was running against Democrat Joseph Lieberman, himself a vocal advocate for the U.S.-Israel relationship. More recently, Democrat Kathy Manning faced a similar issue when she first ran for a congressional seat in North Carolina. Manning had long been a pro-Israel advocate and was the first woman to chair the Jewish Federations of North America and was the founding chair of Prizmah, the umbrella body for Jewish day schools.
In order to continue its historic advocacy work, AIPAC needs to rely on bipartisan support in Congress. In today’s hyper-partisan political environment, where strong pro-Israel candidates emerge to challenge “friendly incumbents,” the historic rule handcuffs AIPAC supporters. And, if the rule is applied to AIPAC’s new PAC and super PAC, it will limit the effectiveness of the new vehicles. Instead, we urge AIPAC to consider development of a different yardstick for assessing candidates.
In today’s rough and tumble political reality, friendly incumbency is not as singularly determinative a measure as it used to be.