Photo: Representative Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.)
Photo Credit: Public Domain
Published June 4, 2021
By Alyce McFadden [The Center for Responsive Politics] –
Former federal government officials would be prohibited from representing foreign corporations and governments as lobbyists under new bipartisan legislation introduced by Reps. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) and Jared Golden (D-Maine).
The ‘‘Congressional and Executive Foreign Lobbying Ban Act’’ seeks to prohibit federally elected lawmakers, senior-level government appointees and high-ranking military officers from registering as lobbyists for foreign agents after they leave the government.
“Folks in Washington sweep it under the rug, but members of Congress, White House officials, and retired military brass have the ability to go to work for foreign governments to influence US policy after leaving office. Believe it or not, that’s entirely legal,” said Golden in a statement.
“It’s dangerous and wrong that it’s allowed in the first place,” he added.
According to Ben Freeman, director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy, it is “incredibly common” for members of Congress and cabinet members to seek lobbying contracts with foreign entities after they leave government.
“It’s hard for me to imagine that a former member of Congress is going to brag to their grandkids that they are now lobbying for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, but on the flip side you see the value of some of these contracts,” Freeman said. “Especially the contracts they are getting to work for dictators and authoritarian regimes. This is really big money. So for these former members of Congress, they’re really cashing out. It’s kind of a retirement plan for them”
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That might be one reason why more than 50 bills aimed at beefing up the Foreign Agents Registration Act failed to become law since 2007, according to a report from the Center for International Policy. Lawmakers have introduced eight separate bills to alter FARA so far this session in addition to Gallagher and Golden’s legislation. Freeman said he’s optimistic that legislation to change the law could draw significant bipartisan support during this session.
Earlier this year, President Joe Biden’s “Executive Order on Ethics Commitments by Executive Branch Personnel” blocked lobbyists registered as foreign agents from joining the White House as staff members or appointees.
The action followed Biden’s decision to return an inauguration donation from former California Sen. Barbara Boxer (D), who was a registered lobbyist for Hikvision, a Chinese camera manufacturer that makes equipment used by the Chinese government to surveil the country’s Uighur population. Following national press coverage, Boxer de-registered as a foreign agent.
Biden’s campaign also pledged to reject donations from foreign lobbyists and has returned multiple donations that were detected through the campaign’s vetting process or identified by journalistic investigations.
But months after the election donations from foreign lobbyists that funded Biden’s campaign are still being uncovered. In May, the DNC announced that the Biden campaign and its joint fundraising committee would refund contributions from a lobbyist for foreign companies partnering with Nord Stream 2 on Russia’s oil pipeline following OpenSecrets reporting.
According to a 2016 report from the Department of Justice, FARA has been routinely underenforced since the 1980s. A 2019 investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election often referred to as “the Mueller Report” also described activities by individuals who should have registered as FARA lobbyists but did not. Although the new bill would widen FARA’s scope, it would not make it easier for the federal government to enforce the law.
“FARA enforcement very clearly needs to be overhauled,” Freeman said, but noted that so-called “shadow lobbying” may still be an issue,“People could say ‘no we’re not working for a foreign government, we’re just working for a lobbying firm that happens to have international clients.’”
The For the People Act, Democrats’ hallmark package of sweeping changes to campaign and electoral systems known as H.R. 1 or S.1, also tackles FARA rules. It would establish a formal unit within the DOJ to investigate and enforce FARA violations and implement civil and criminal penalties for violations.
The bill, which passed the House but is stalled in the Senate, would also prohibit anyone from lobbying on behalf of countries that violate the human rights of their residents. Golden voted for the bill and Gallagher voted against it.
Gallagher and Golden’s bill would not impact former White House or congressional staffers’ ability to register as FARA lobbyists.
“I was shocked by that when I first saw this bill. I would dare say that [former] congressional staff are the most common type of FARA registrant,” Freeman said. “I would say that’s more common than lawyers, PR people, any of that.”
In general, Freeman noted that public interest in FARA and foreign influence has skyrocketed since the 2016 election, and he encourages voters to continue to pay attention to FARA reforms going forward.
“There are some national security concerns that people should be mindful of. These are all people with security clearances. These are people who had access to top secret information, and their next job is to work for an authoritarian regime? I think that should worry people,” Freeman said. “I think their voters should be a little concerned that they are cashing out on that access to top secret information.”