Congress loses momentum on overhaul of foreign lobbying
Washington – A push to give the Justice Department more enforcement authority over the lucrative and at times shadowy world of foreign lobbying is stalled amid opposition from pro-business groups, nonprofits and privacy advocates.
Organizations that range from the influential U.S. Chamber of Commerce to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers have raised objections to legislation that would sharpen the teeth of the Foreign Agents Registration Act. The law, enacted 80 years ago to expose Nazi propaganda, requires people to disclose when they lobby in the U.S. on behalf of foreign governments or political entities.
While there’s bipartisan support for cracking down on unregistered foreign agents, several of the changes proposed in congressional bills could backfire by sweeping in a host of unintended targets, according to critics. That pushback has effectively kept the legislation from advancing as lobbying groups press for revisions.
One of the most contentious provisions would eliminate a popular loophole that permits lobbyists representing foreign commercial interests to be exempt from the law, known as FARA. That shift, one business group has warned, could extend the rigorous disclosure requirements to U.S. subsidiaries of global companies, stigmatizing them as foreign agents even though they employ thousands of Americans.
Congressional interest in fortifying the law comes in the aftermath of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election and a special counsel investigation that’s drawn greater attention to the inner workings of international influence peddling.
Most recently, Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman, admitted in a plea deal that he’d failed to register as a foreign agent when he directed a lobbying operation for Ukrainian interests. Prosecutors said he concealed millions of dollars in income for the work from the IRS.
Earlier this year, federal prosecutors unveiled an indictment against a Russian troll farm accused of interfering in the 2016 election through bogus Facebook posts that revealed how foreign parties can weaponize social media to influence public opinion.
Yet criminal cases under FARA have been rare, with fewer than a dozen since 1966 as the Justice Department generally emphasized voluntary compliance over prosecution. Lawmakers supporting the bills say a 2016 inspector general’s report found that the department lacked the tools it needed to properly enforce FARA.
But the defense lawyers association and the Center for Democracy and Technology, a civil-liberties group, have declared that Fourth Amendment privacy protections would be undermined by a section of the bill that would expand the Justice Department’s power to investigate possible violations of the law.