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Can Members of Congress Shill for Constituents? | Commentary

By Jason Katz  

Critics, pundits and average Americans love, even relish, attacking members of Congress for being “in the pocket” of “special interests.” Media coverage is replete with veiled and not so veiled accusations about selling votes for campaign contributions or donations to a member’s “favorite charity.” There have been a few members through the years who have been tagged for such malfeasance.  

Enter the phenomenon of a member of Congress shilling for actual constituents. Is that fair or foul? Is it ethical for a like-minded group in one congressional district to bring pressure on a member to vote and conduct their duties in one manner or another? Perhaps not, but what if it is openly on behalf on another nation? One that is decidedly not an ally of the U.S.
Enter Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., for instance. I know Sherman and have for years. He is a fairly anonymous member and a fairly innocuous guy whom my former boss used to lovingly refer to as “the dweeb.” I even interviewed to be his district chief of staff, albeit so long ago, it was like another life. I do remember being a little disconcerted he seemed more interested in my ability to fundraise, rather than my expertise in public affairs or international relations. Recently, a colleague sent me Sherman’s official and tax-payer funded email newsletter. The congressman’s newsletter began:

Dear Friend, I want to update you on my efforts to strengthen ties between the United States and Armenia. As a senior member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, I have focused on recognizing the Armenian Genocide, increasing aid to Armenia, Artsakh, and Javakh, and holding Azerbaijan accountable for its actions.

The headings comprised: Congressional Report on Armenia, Commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, Telephone Town Hall Meeting — Tuesday, April 21, Calling for Permanent Display of Armenian Genocide Orphan Rug In November of 2014, the White House displayed the Armenian Orphan Rug in an exhibit entitled “Thank you to the United States: Three Gifts to Presidents in Gratitude for American Generosity Abroad” at the White House Visitors Center, Aid for Armenia and Artsakh and Holding Azerbaijan Accountable and Increased Assistance to Javakh.  

I wasn’t aware that California’s 30th Congressional District was nearly monolithically Armenian and/or of Armenian descent. According to the congressman’s statistics in 2006-2008: White-43 percent, Latino-41.2 percent, African American-3.4 percent, Asian-10.2 percent. And Artsakh? I believe, and so officially does the rest of the world, including the United States, that is the Nagorno-Karabkah region of Azerbaijan that is internationally recognized as illegally occupied by Armenia. As for Javakh, it is a region within Georgia with compact Armenian minority and subject to territorial claims by some more radical Armenians. Actually, many Armenians in Javakheti region of Georgia as it is properly called, carry Russian passports – an eerie and, perhaps not entirely unintentional reminder of Moscow’s recently discovered favorite excuse for invasions.  

So why would the Congressman’s newsletter, again at tax payer expense, be devoted exclusively Armenian issues? Why is any member so concerned with a foreign nation that has by anyone’s account, save their own, become a vassal state of the Russian Federation? In fact, Armenia recently turned away from the West by joining Mr. Putin’s Eurasian Customs Union — the counter to the European Union. Armenian borders and airspace are even patrolled by the Russian military. The Armenian president, Serge Sargysan, was recently quoted expressing his warm and fuzzy feelings toward his close ally Iran and the Mullahs. Further, why would a member of U.S. Congress go so far to offend not one, but two of America’s most important regional allies, Azerbaijan and Georgia?  

So, really, Armenia is not an important nation to the U.S. Indispensable to the Iranians and Russians? Absolutely. That said, I assume Sherman has a significant Armenian-American community in his district. He should represent their interests — as long as those interests do not go directly against those of our nation as a whole.  

This all begs a question I have posed for years: What is the responsibility of a member of Congress? Is it a member’s responsibility to his/her constituents, no matter the allegiances of those constituents? Or do members of Congress have a dual role … one to represent all of their constituents, not just a loud and boisterous and, yes, generous group, but also to represent the best interests of the United States of America?
Jason Katz is the principal of TSG, LLC, a consultancy that advises foreign governments, NGOs and corporations in the realms of strategic communications, politics and policy. He is also the former head of Public Affairs and Public Relations for the American Jewish Committee, based in Los Angeles.

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