Turkey hires familiar faces for genocide debate
October 5, 2007
Source: CQ Roll Call (Washington, D.C.)
By Alan K. Ota
In 2003, Richard A. Gephardt cosponsored a resolution that put the "Armenian genocide" in company with the Holocaust and mass deaths in Cambodia and Rwanda.
In 2000, the Missouri lawmaker backed a similar measure, and in a letter to then-Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., Gephardt said he was "committed to obtaining official U.S. government recognition of the Armenian genocide."
Now Gephardt is a foreign agent lobbying on behalf of Turkey, and he’s got a different view of the world. He’s working to stymie the latest version of an Armenian genocide resolution.
If the resolution (H Res 106) gets through committee this week, it will bring a billing bonanza for lobbyists working against it — including Gephardt, who represents one of the newest additions to a small group of former lawmakers who serve as the American face of foreign countries on Capitol Hill.
The Armenian resolution is popular — with 226 co-sponsors — but problematic, given that Turkey is an important Muslim ally in a strategically vital part of the world.
The events at issue occurred nearly a century ago in what was then the Ottoman Empire, but Turkey is still sensitive to characterizations of the killings.
Gephardt, responding via e-mail to written questions, confirmed that he had escorted Turkish Ambassador Nabi Sensoy to meetings with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders.
Gephardt (1977-2005) acknowledged that he had in the past actively supported efforts to label activities of the Ottoman Empire as genocide. But "alienating Turkey through the passage of the resolution could undermine our efforts to promote stability in the theater of operations, if not exacerbate the situation further," he said.
Pelosi, D-Calif., declined to comment on any private talks about Turkey, saying only that she would welcome talks on the measure and other issues with Gephardt, who preceded her as House Democratic leader. "I have the highest regard for Dick Gephardt. Any advice he has on any subject is indeed welcome by me," she said.
Pelosi’s open door for Gephardt demonstrates the muscle former lawmakers can provide for clients by snagging meetings and conversations with the most powerful members of Congress. As with all other kinds of lobbying, they can’t assure success but they can give client countries access they might not otherwise have to the legislative branch.
When Republicans controlled Congress, they often blocked measures, such as the Armenian resolution, that could embarrass allies and the Bush administration.
In the 110th Congress, foreign countries have had mixed success trying to slow or water down such measures.
Despite the help of prominent lobbyists, such as former House Minority Leader Bob Michel, R-Ill. (1957-1995), Japan lost a battle in July when the House passed a resolution (H Res 121) urging it to apologize for using sex slaves, or comfort women, in World War II.
Working with lobbyists associated with DLA Piper, the firm where Gephardt is a senior counsel, Ethiopia got plenty of support from the White House. But the country failed to delay House action on a plan (HR 2003) by Donald M. Payne, D-N.J., to limit security assistance unless it moves to release political prisoners and protect human rights.
Gephardt said he had met with Ethiopian representatives but elected not to work for Ethiopia.
However, Gephardt has been active on behalf of Turkey, which has long insisted that Armenians died not from genocide, but in conflicts tied to World War I — including an uprising against Turkey’s Ottoman rulers.
Also representing Turkey is former Rep. Robert L. Livingston, R-La. (1977-1999).
Another former congressman, Stephen J. Solarz, D-N.Y. (1975-1993), worked for Turkey until August.
The Foreign Affairs Committee plans to take up the Armenian genocide resolution on Wednesday, and Payne and other members predict it will have broad bipartisan support on the panel.
Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., said a House vote on the Armenian genocide resolution has not been scheduled, but he believes it will happen this year. "It’s my expectation we will have a floor vote before we leave here in November," Hoyer said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., backs a companion measure (S Res 106), but it has less momentum: just 32 co-sponsors.
Tougher Limits Sought
Critics argue that former lawmakers give foreign countries too much power inside the Capitol and are calling for tougher restrictions and revolving-door limits.
For example, Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, has called for a lifetime ban (HR 168) to prevent lawmakers and senior government officials from becoming foreign agents.
"Public confidence in government is shaken when they see high-level officials and lawmakers going to work for foreign countries," she said.
In response to such critiques, Gephardt and other foreign agents contend they seek to merely ensure a vigorous debate, not special favors for foreign countries.
"The better informed members are about all aspects of a particular issue, the more likely Congress comes to the proper course of action," Gephardt said.
He said he serves dual roles in "private conversations with former colleagues and meetings where I accompany the client."
Livingston describes the role of foreign agents as calming what can be emotional fights. "It’s more intense than lobbying," he said.
Working in tandem with the Bush administration, Gephardt, Livingston and, for a time, Solarz tapped their personal contacts to try to block the Armenian genocide resolution.
Last Dec. 19, Solarz sent a letter to Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla., inviting him to lead a congressional delegation to Turkey and to visit Solarz’ home on its Mediterranean coast.
"You and other members of the delegation would be more than welcome to spend the evening and the next day with us," Solarz wrote. "If not, I’ll still love you, but I’ll need to find someone else to do it."
Wexler, who never made the trip to visit Solarz in Turkey, is not expected to support the resolution.
Turkey hired DLA Piper on May 10. Gephardt registered the next day to represent the country.
The firm has since circulated a package of materials to lawmakers that lays out Turkey’s case for foreign aid and its argument against the Armenian genocide resolution.
Lawmakers in both parties have long catered to the interests of Americans of Armenian descent, a small but vocal group. The Congressional Caucus on Armenian Issues has about 120 members, while the Congressional Turkey Caucus is roughly half as large.
In 2000, Livingston and other advocates for Turkey won a victory when President Clinton urged Hastert to back away from a planned floor vote on an Armenian genocide resolution. "It wasn’t just Clinton. It was us working it hard," Livingston said. "The Speaker changed his mind."
Hoping for a similar reversal by Pelosi, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates have sent letters laying out the reasons they think the resolution would “significantly endanger U.S. national security interests.”
In the coming week, the lobbying focus will be on the Foreign Affairs Committee, where 22 of the 50 members are cosponsors, but some may be amenable to making word changes in the name of U.S-Turkish relations.
After that, the lobbying goes behind the scenes, and it will be up to Pelosi whether and when to allow a House floor fight.