Lawmakers are seizing on momentum to crack down on unregistered foreign lobbying in the new Congress, after special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation put a spotlight on the issue.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is aiming to reintroduce legislation that would close loopholes in the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) that critics say allow lobbyists who work for foreign entities to conceal their work.
Grassley has made it clear that updating the decades-old law and toughening enforcement is a top concern, pressing President Trump’s attorney general nominee, William Barr, on the matter during his confirmation hearing on Jan. 15.
“Do you agree that the Foreign Agents Registration Act is a critical national security and public accountability tool, and if confirmed, will you commit to make sure that that act is a top priority?” Grassley asked.
Barr said he agreed.
Foreign lobbying has been in the national spotlight since Mueller obtained guilty pleas under the law from two prominent Trump 2016 campaign aides, Paul Manafort and Richard Gates, over their lobbying work on behalf of pro-Russian forces in Ukraine.
FARA dates back to the era of the Second World War, when the nation was worried about the influence of foreign propaganda. But decades later, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle find the law outdated, weak and filled with loopholes.
The law’s complexities often bring controversy. Recently, former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) faced pressure from watchdog groups to register as a foreign lobbyist for the Chinese telecom firm ZTE. The company is under pressure from lawmakers and the administration over national security concerns because of its ties with the Chinese government. Amid pressure, Lieberman in January officially registered as a lobbyist for the company.
Lawmakers have tried to change the law in the past, especially since President Trump took office, but those efforts have fallen short.
Grassley introduced the Disclosing Foreign Influence Act in late 2017 with Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.). Grassley said at the Barr hearing that he wants to try again to pass the bill, and Johnson said it would be reintroduced this Congress.
The bill would correct loopholes that lobbyists who work with foreign entities use to avoid disclosing their work through FARA. Currently, non-U.S. companies can register through the Lobbying Disclosure Act, which is the domestic lobbying law, if they are representing foreign entities that are not governments.
But disclosing through the Lobbying Disclosure Act instead of FARA allows companies to avoid sharing advisory services and public relations work.
The House Judiciary Committee passed the Grassley-Johnson bill in January 2018. It was introduced in the Senate and referred to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where it stalled.
“We feel like it’s a great solution to the problem. It addresses the main deficiencies of FARA without going too far,” Johnson told The Hill. “It’s best tailored to really solve the problem [that] has been going on for decades … [a] problem that is not going away anytime soon.”
The congressman said he thinks lawmakers and stakeholders across the political spectrum believe FARA needs a fix but there are outside forces pushing Congress to keep the status quo.
But some are calling for caution as lawmakers push to change the law.
The Organization for International Investment, a trade association comprised of the U.S. subsidiaries of international companies, believes FARA reforms could complicate matters for their members. The group cited Nestle, a member based in Switzerland that has operations in the U.S.
“There should be a very bright line between somebody working for the Russian government versus Americans working for a Dutch grocery story or a Canadian auto parts company,” the organization’s president and CEO, Nancy McLernon, told The Hill.
“On the FARA issue, we’ve been working quite a bit with our companies going up to Capitol Hill and trying to educate on how these companies that are in their state and in their district are getting caught in the crosshairs,” McLernon added.
The organization is working on revising the law and tightening its requirements to ensure those representing foreign governments thoroughly disclose their activities, without hurting member businesses.
Lobbyists who work with foreign entities are insistent they follow the rules and wouldn’t fall into the trap that two D.C. firms that Manafort recruited to lobby on behalf of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in the United States did: the now-defunct Podesta Group and Mercury Public Affairs.
Neither firm registered under FARA for lobbying work but instead registered under the Lobbying Disclosure Act.
“I think most of the big firms have very skilled ethics counsel so they would have been registered,” a lobbyist told The Hill. But the lobbyist acknowledged that “even the ones that were in-line with registration and FARA are going to have to reconsider it now.”
There will be no shortage of proposals for reforming FARA as lawmakers look to seize on momentum.
Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) had a bill last Congress, the Curtailing Lobbyists and Empowering Americans for a New Politics Act. It’s unclear if they will reintroduce it this Congress.
The bill would change the 20 percent rule, which requires people to register as lobbyists only if they spend at least 20 percent of their time lobbying.
Sarbanes is the chairman of the Democracy Reform Task Force, which is behind Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) House Resolution 1.
Among the many ethics reform measures H.R. 1 aims to implement are closing loopholes for lobbyists and foreign agents and ensuring watchdogs have resources to enforce the law.
Others have indicated they also intend to jump into the debate, some with even more draconian proposals.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) called lobbying for foreign governments “unseemly” in an interview with Fox News in December.
“I’m toying with the idea … of whether or not we should just make a law that you can’t do lobbying for foreign governments because it really does appear to be divided loyalty whether you’re in government or not,” he said.
With Grassley taking a lead in the Senate and with Democrats also highlighting the issue as a priority under Pelosi, an effort to rein in the activity of foreign agents could have bipartisan legs.
Democrats got a road map for handling the issue from former President Obama.
Obama listed ending foreign lobbying as a “good new idea” during a speech in September at the University of Illinois.
“Democrats aren’t just running on good old ideas like requiring presidential candidates to release their tax returns and barring lobbyists from making campaign contributions, but on good new ideas like barring lobbyists from getting paid by foreign governments,” he said.
But it is unclear if that momentum will translate into floor action. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) failed to address it as a top priority at the start of the new Congress.
Although it has broad bipartisan support, a bill to crack down on foreign lobbying may not see the Senate floor this year, with GOP leaders focused on other priorities.
“It’s one of the few issues in Washington that seemingly virtually everyone agrees,” Johnson told The Hill. “We just need to have the political courage.”