Trade group hires Dem lawyer to lobby on campaign finance

A trade association for foreign-owned U.S. subsidiaries has hired a former Democratic Party lawyer to lobby on campaign finance reform legislation working its way through Congress.

Joseph Birkenstock, a former chief counsel for the Democratic National Committee (DNC), has registered to lobby for the Organization for International Investment (OFII) on legislation intended to counteract a recent Supreme Court ruling.

ADVERTISEMENT
Watchdog groups have criticized the high court’s decision in the Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission case and Democrats on Capitol Hill are seeking a legislative response that would limit its impact on elections.

The trade group has been a target of the White House, which noted foreign companies lobbying against new efforts to tighten campaign finance law.

Nancy McLernon, OFII’s president and CEO, said Birkenstock has been hired because of his expertise in campaign finance law.

“He is trying to help us to be as constructive as possible to help lawmakers noodle through this without calling U.S. subsidiaries of foreign companies a loophole,” McLernon said. “The anti-foreign rhetoric is creating a bad environment for these companies to do business.”

Birkenstock has been lobbying for the trade association since Feb. 2 and has been working specifically on the legislative response to the Supreme Court decision, according to his lobbying registration that was disclosed on March 2.

According to his online bio at Caplin & Drysdale, Birkenstock notes his service to the DNC. As a lawyer to the party committee, he helped respond to fundraising investigations stemming from the 1996 presidential election, worked on litigation surrounding the Florida recount in 2000 and helped the DNC transition under new campaign finance law authored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.).

Birkenstock did not respond to messages asking for comment for this story.

The Citizens United ruling removed restrictions on spending by corporations and unions but did not alter a ban on foreign citizens from contributing to or directing campaign spending.

The decision allows corporations and unions to use their general treasury funds without limits to expressly advocate for or against a candidate. U.S. subsidiaries of foreign-owned corporations also have that same newfound freedom to play in the political process, just like their American peers.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) have been tasked with counteracting the Citizens United decision with legislation. According to an outline released last month, the lawmakers plan to seek more disclosure from companies and lobbyists when they offer backing to election campaign ads.

In addition, the outline of the forthcoming legislation noted it would ban a corporation from spending money on U.S. elections if it had foreign ownership of 20 percent or more; a majority of its board of directors are non-U.S. citizens; or if its decision-making on its U.S. political activities falls under a foreign entity, including a foreign government.

McLernon feels the proposal put forth by Schumer and Van Hollen unfairly targets her association’s member companies, which include Bayer Corp., Michelin and Nestlé.

“The way the outline reads, it appears to target U.S. subsidiaries of foreign companies, and only U.S. subsidiaries of foreign companies, as if that was the only avenue for foreign influence,” McLernon said. “Concerns of foreign influence should be dealt with across the board, and the best way to do so would be through disclosure and strengthening of current law.”

The White House in particular has taken issue with the trade group’s lobbying on the legislation. In a blog post last month, Norm Eisen, the ethics counsel to the president, said lobbyists linked to foreign corporations are pushing “to protect their newfound power to influence American elections.”

McLernon defended her trade association’s lobbying on the issue.

“When you are a U.S. subsidiary of a company, you have to make sure you are treated equally in all areas as any other U.S. company or it will quickly start impact on how you do business,” McLernon said.

Despite the urgency from Democrats in the administration and in Congress, lobbyists have been wondering when the legislation was going to be officially introduced since Schumer and Van Hollen released their framework more than a month ago.

According to a Van Hollen aide, the legislation is still being drafted but aides are working towards introduction of the bill in both the House and the Senate sometime next week.

Silla Brush contributed to this article