Congress mulls toughening foreign lobbying law

Congress mulls toughening foreign lobbying law
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Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyGOP moves to cut debate time for Trump nominees Democrats fret over GOP changes to Mueller bill Let Robert Mueller do his job MORE (R-Iowa) on Tuesday introduced a bill that would toughen some of the rules around foreign lobbying and give the Justice Department more authority to go after those who violate them.

The legislation is the latest to be introduced on Capitol Hill so far this year to reform the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), the law governing foreign advocacy in the United States. It’s the same law special counsel Robert Mueller this week accused former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort of violating. 

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“Congress passed the Foreign Agents Registration Act to prevent inappropriate influence in domestic policy, but my oversight work has uncovered rampant disregard by foreign agents and lackluster enforcement by federal authorities,” said Grassley, who held a hearing about FARA enforcement this summer, in a statement on Tuesday. “This bill seeks to correct those flaws by improving enforcement, compliance and oversight of FARA.”

The legislation, called the Disclosing Foreign Influence Act, would require more frequent disclosures from those representing foreign clients, tying filing deadlines to the law used by lobbyists representing domestic clients, the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA). 

Right now, foreign agents must disclose a new client within 10 days of signing the contract, and include the contract in its filings. FARA requires firms to update the Justice Department every six months with details about who lobbyists or public relations firms speak with on clients’ behalf and how much they’re paid. Under the LDA, reports about revenues and spending are due quarterly.

The new legislation would require the Justice Department to “develop a comprehensive enforcement strategy for FARA,” and give the FARA unit within the department the authority to issue subpoenas in order to investigate whether individuals or firms should be registering as foreign agents.

It’s something that the Justice Department has been asking Congress to approve for years. The FARA unit currently relies on news media reports or tips from other agencies or whistleblowers to identify who may be evading registration as a foreign agent. 

Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.), a member of the House Judiciary Committee, brought companion legislation in the lower-chamber.

“Properly enforcing our disclosure laws and ending irresponsible exemptions is critical to maintaining the integrity of our political system as well as our national security. Hostile foreign nations have long sought to exploit every avenue when attempting to undermine the United States,” Johnson said.

Over the last 50 years, there have only been about seven cases brought under FARA, with most or all being coupled with more severe charges. 

Violating FARA by not submitting disclosures on time, or at all, can be remediated by registering retroactively and eventually turning in paperwork. A report by the Justice Department's inspector general last year found that about half of all FARA paperwork is turned in late. 

But the bill may receive some fierce pushback from industries, business groups — and potentially other members of Congress — because it eliminates the so-called LDA exemption.

That provision within FARA exempts lobbyists representing foreign-based private entities from having to register with the Justice Department if they file reports with the House and Senate under the LDA. The client, however, must have no ties to foreign governments.

Eliminating the loophole means that lobbyists representing clients like Japan-based automaker uldHonda or Belgium-based Anheuser-Busch Inbev would be subject to more rigorous disclosure requirements.

That would include having to list every meeting, email and phone call with government officials, their aides and potentially even outside interests like think-tanks and journalists. 

“In theory, disclosure is a good thing, as long as the disclosure is not so burdensome that people refuse to do it,” said Joshua Ian Rosenstein, a lobbying disclosure law expert at Sandler Reiff Lamb Rosenstein & Birkenstock. “Is industry going to go along with this, given the massive compliance burden they’re going to be faced with?”

“The second part is, traditionally members of Congress are very reluctant to impose restrictions upon themselves,” he said. “This change would require disclosure of any meeting with a member of Congress or staffer with a representative of Toyota or Honda or Motorola.”

Eliminating the LDA exemption would also likely sweep up more than just lobbyists for these companies, because FARA requires public relations firms and consultants to register their work as well. 

Other legislation has been introduced so far this year to change how FARA works and is enforced. 

One from Sens. Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenSenators pledge to pursue sanctions against Turkey over imprisoned American pastor Dems walk tightrope on Pompeo nomination Menendez rips characterization of Pompeo as 'nation's top diplomat' MORE (D-N.H.) and Todd YoungTodd Christopher YoungSenators introduce bill to update Trump's war authority This week: House GOP plots path forward Congress can act to prevent genocide and atrocities MORE (R-Ind.) would give the National Security Division of the Justice Department — which oversees the FARA Unit — more powers, eliminate filing fees and give agents more time to submit certain required disclosures. The House has companion legislation.

FARA registrations have dropped off significantly since the 1990s, according to the report from the Department of Justice's inspector general, saying that it likely had to do with the implementation of filing fees and a reform of domestic lobbying laws that ushered in the LDA exemption to FARA.

Grassley’s bill comes in the wake of a 12-count grand jury indictment dropped by Mueller on Monday. Two of the counts charged Manafort and campaign aide Richard Gates with knowingly violating FARA when they did work for a nonprofit with ties to a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine. 

They did not properly report the lobbying activity — which allegedly included working with two top K Street firms on advocacy — to the Justice Department, and then lied to authorities last year when questioned about it, the indictment said.