Government by the Highest Bidder

AIPAC, Foreign Interest Lobbies, and Legalized Bribery Drive American Foreign Policy

By Luke Peterson

May/Jun 2024

AIPAC has been on a spending spree. In the last quarter of 2023 and in the first two months of 2024, it has been working overtime pouring millions of dollars into the outstretched hands of avaricious American politicians on both sides of the aisle in the politically divided United States. Its current spree is setting records; in November 2023 alone the fervently pro-Israeli political action committee donated $3.7 million dollars to politicians — ostensibly to fund their election campaigns. According to the Federal Election Commission, this one-month total marks the single highest month of giving in AIPAC’s famously generous history.

The largest single recipient of this lavish aid was Rep. Richie Torres (D-N.Y.), whose November 2023 gift totaled more than $200,000. In return, he has suddenly become incredibly vocal in his criticism of fellow party members who have been outspoken against Israel’s indiscriminate bombing in Gaza. This progressive end of the Democratic Party in federal government, the pejoratively named “Squad,” includes diverse, female party members like Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. 

Tlaib, a Palestinian-American, has publicly called upon the Biden administration to denounce Israeli war crimes in Gaza and end military aid to Israel. Torres responded to legislation designed to mitigate the prolific death and destruction wrought by Israel by voting with nearly all House Republicans to censure Tlaib for “promoting false narratives” about the situation in Gaza and, absurdly, for “calling for the destruction of the state of Israel.” 

Donald Shaw, writing for (Jan. 3), reported that Torres received his largest single payment — about a third of the overall $200,000 haul — just one day after he voted to censure his colleague and fellow party member.

And Torres is not alone. House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), the second largest recipient, has come out strongly against conditioning all or part of the annual $4 billion aid package to Israel and has continued to loudly and proudly proclaim his support for Israel. His devotion to Israel has paid off, literally. According to Open Secrets, AIPAC has gifted him more than $1,250,000 over the last decade. As payment for his support of Israel’s ongoing post-Oct.7 indiscriminate bombing of Gaza, it awarded him an additional $200,000 contribution to his future electoral campaigns. It seems clear that being a vocal supporter of Israel in Washington, in addition to being a vocal critic of voices championing Palestinian humanity, pays very well indeed. 

But AIPAC is far from unique in using financial leverage to steer Washington in the direction of specific policy outcomes. Indeed lobbying, technically defined as “the deliberate attempt to effect or to resist change in the law through direct communications with public policymakers including legislators, legislative staff, and executive branch officials,” has long been entrenched in American politics — even predating the establishment of the federal government (Ostas, D. T. [2007]. “The Law and Ethics of K Street.” Business Ethics Quarterly, 17(1), 33–63. Jan. 21, 2010 will mark the day when the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, a controversial (5:4) decision that reversed century-old campaign finance restrictions and enabled corporations and other outside groups to spend unlimited funds on elections.

During the colonial period, land agents and manufacturing and shipping firms’ representatives beseeched lawmakers to advance the policies most favorable to their interests. Adopting tactics learned from negotiations with British parliamentarians, these special interest groups provided lavish gifts and decadent suppers to legislators. After the revolution, groups organized to petition the newly created federal government for preferential laws around commerce, trade, traffic and taxes. 

For example, former soldiers in the Continental Army of Virginia lobbied Congress for the back pay they felt they were owed for fighting the British. Their success quickly taught them that, when petitioning the government, there was strength in numbers. But this strength was clearly not nearly as formidable as the strength of the dollar.

By the 1870s, in the midst of the Gilded Age, a period of profound division between haves and have-nots. In the full embrace of the Industrial Revolution, hand-to-mouth workers could scarcely sustain themselves on the paltry wages paid by their industrial managers in the North; freedmen and sharecroppers continued to be brutalized and denigrated in the South. But lobbying continued in Washington apace with well-known lobbyists serving as indispensable middlemen between big business and lawmakers on the take. 

Perhaps the most famous member of this clique was Sam Ward, the “King of the Lobby,” whose lavish parties and easy-going charm were the stuff of legend among the propertied and influential classes. In 1875, though, in a rare case of a court bringing lobbying to heel, Ward was charged and ultimately convicted of bribery. But despite this, he famously quipped, “I do not say I am proud—but I am not ashamed—of the occupation.” Further restrictions on lobbyists, both foreign and domestic, were still to come (“Lobbying Timeline.” [July 2014]

In 1938, Congress passed the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which forced representatives working for foreign political or domestic capital interests to disclose their relationships with politicians. The act was intended to make it easier for officials to identify colleagues who had any connections with, or even sympathy for, Germany’s burgeoning Nazi Party and the fascist ideology it represented. Congress worried that those officials with interests in Germany would become a fifth column and begin to flood American airwaves with pro-Nazi propaganda just as the U.S. was moving closer to war against Germany. Narrow in scope though it was, this act marked the first significant piece of legislation concerning the widespread practice of lobbying passed by the U.S. government. 

After the war and amidst continuing fears over the undue foreign influence within the federal government, Congress passed the Lobby Registration Act of 1945, identifying professional lobbyists as anyone who spent at least half of his/her working hours directly lobbying members of the U.S. government. 

In addition to being publicly identified as professional lobbyists, these individuals now had to register with the Secretary of the Senate and/or the Clerk of the House of Representatives and file quarterly reports disclosing the details of their activities within these bodies. The registration, regulation and transparency inherent within this act identified lobbying as a problematic practice on Capitol Hill and attempted to curb the influence of prolific donors and outside operators within American halls of power. 

But the postwar trend of leaning toward transparency of governmental operations naturally couldn’t last. In 1954 (United States vs. Harriss), the Supreme Court narrowed the act’s purview by determining that it applied only to face-to-face meetings between lobbyists and lawmakers, and even then, only when a specific piece of legislation was the exclusive topic of discussion. This extensive mitigation opened the door for the return of old school American lobbying and all but ensured that no federal court would ever catch or prosecute any of its violators. Lawlessness through lobbying had returned to Washington. 

By the 1980s, lobbyists from every major corporate interest made permanent landfall in Washington, wining and dining Senators and Representatives without any concern for legal consequences. Eventually the recklessness that inevitably results from abandoning regulation led to systemic abuse. In 2004, Jack Abramoff, a Gilded-Age style lobbyist, was arrested for bribery, fraud and embezzlement and was ultimately convicted for what had become common practice among lobbyists overseen and embraced by the Washington elite. This conviction, and the common knowledge that bribery was rife in Washington, led to the passage of the comically titled 2007 Honest Leadership and Open Government Act. Lobbyists were now required to file reports twice per quarter, and the size and scope of the gifts congresspeople were allowed to receive from them were limited (“Lobbying Timeline.” [July 2014]. 

But even these miniscule restrictions on the tradition of legitimate bribery were considered too onerous. The solution was simple: rebranding. As a result, since 2011 the number and expenditure of professional lobbyists has decreased dramatically. During that same period of time, though, the number of “advisers,” “consultants” and “counselors” working on behalf of foreign and domestic interests has risen precipitously. And despite its lofty title, federal legislation has not yet caught up to this completely predictable loophole. 

And so lobbying remains part and parcel of our government’s function. More than that, it remains an essential pillar of the American system, a legitimated form of barely regulated bribery enshrined within the right “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” and sustained by generations of legal precedent self-sustaining policy decisions. These developments leave AIPAC and other blindly unapologetic pro-Israel super-PACs, like the Democratic Majority for Israel, comfortably unconcerned about their conduct within the American political circus. It also leaves the status quo, wherein vocal supporters of Israel are financially rewarded while critics of Israeli brutality are categorically censured, as the operating order of the day. 

To date, AIPAC has contributed more than $18 million to candidates for office in the 2024 election cycle. Experts suggest that they will spend more than $100 million in Democratic primaries alone before this year’s election cycle is over. To date, Israel has killed more than 30,000 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip since October 2023.

Dr. Luke Peterson received his Ph.D. from the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at The University of Cambridge – (King’s  College). His new book, The U.S. Military in the Print News Media:

Service and Sacrifice in Discourse is now available for preorder through Anthem Press  The U.S. Military in the Print News Media (

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