House passes bill taking aim at anonymous shell companies

House passes bill taking aim at anonymous shell companies
© Greg Nash

The House on Tuesday passed legislation aimed at cracking down on the use of anonymous shell companies for illicit activities.

The bill passed by a vote of 249-173. Twenty-five Republicans joined most Democrats in voting for the bill, while five Democrats voted against it.

The vote comes after the House Financial Services Committee advanced the measure in June.

Under the bill, certain corporations and limited liability companies would be required to disclose their true owners to the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) at the time they are formed. They’d also have to submit annual filings with FinCEN listing their current true owners and any changes to ownership. There would be penalties for people who intentionally submit fraudulent or incomplete information.

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The disclosure requirements don’t apply to companies that have more than 20 employees and $5 million in gross receipts because these companies are less likely to be anonymous shell companies.

The bill would also make major updates to the Bank Secrecy Act for the first time since 2001.

Supporters of the bill argue that it would be helpful in combating money laundering, terror financing and tax evasion.

“It will make our country safer,” said Rep. Carolyn MaloneyCarolyn Bosher MaloneyUS could avoid 4.5M early deaths by fighting climate change, study finds Carolyn Maloney defeats Suraj Patel to win New York primary: AP Maloney, Torres declare victory in NY primary races after weeks of delays MORE (D-N.Y.), who introduced the bill.

House Financial Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine WatersMaxine Moore WatersMaxine Waters expresses confidence Biden will pick Black woman as VP Bill from Warren, Gillibrand and Waters would make Fed fight economic racial inequalities Waters rips Trump, GOP over mail-in ballots: 'They'll lie, cheat and steal to stay in power' MORE (D-Calif.) said that the bill is “an important commonsense measure that stops criminals from being able to hide behind anonymous shell companies.”

The bill has the backing of a number of stakeholders, including from law enforcement, anti-corruption, human rights and banking groups.

But it’s opposed by some GOP lawmakers and business groups, such as the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) and the National Retail Federation, which argue that the legislation would impose steep compliance costs for small businesses and raises privacy concerns.

“This bill before us is a new small-business mandate on the smallest businesses in America,” said Rep. Patrick McHenryPatrick Timothy McHenryCheney battle raises questions about House GOP's future Hillicon Valley: Democrats request counterintelligence briefing | New pressure for election funding | Republicans urge retaliation against Chinese hackers House Republicans urge Trump to take action against Chinese hackers targeting coronavirus research MORE (N.C.), the top Republican on the House Financial Services Committee.

Brad Close, senior vice president of public policy for the NFIB, said that banks are already required to collect ownership info from all their clients and that the government can get access to that information.

“We don’t think this bill is the way to go,” he said.

The Trump administration spoke positively about the bill, saying in a statement of administration policy that the measure “represents important progress in strengthening national security, supporting law enforcement, and clarifying regulatory requirements.” But the administration also said that steps need to be taken to improve the bill as it moves through Congress, including improvements that protect small businesses from burdensome reporting requirements.  

A version of the bill has been offered in the Senate by Sens. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenTrump signs executive orders after coronavirus relief talks falter Senate Democrats demand answers on migrant child trafficking during pandemic Hillicon Valley: Facebook removes Trump post | TikTok gets competitor | Lawmakers raise grid safety concerns MORE (D-Ore.) and Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioPPP application window closes after coronavirus talks deadlock  The Hill's Campaign Report: US officials say Russia, China are looking to sow discord in election US intelligence says Russia seeking to 'denigrate' Biden MORE (R-Fla.).

Wyden said in a statement after the House passage that "with the White House supporting this effort there’s no excuse for further delay in acting on this legislation."