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Amid impeachment, groups press for limits on foreign influence

Liberal groups urge overhaul of foreign lobbying rules

Liberal groups are trying to bring their proposals into alignment with a plan by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

As foreign influence takes center stage in House impeachment proceedings, lawmakers, candidates, and outside groups are tossing around proposals to curb, or shed new light on, efforts from abroad to sway U.S. policy and elections.

Liberal-leaning groups, including Public Citizen, are prodding House Democrats to sign on to forthcoming legislation that would overhaul foreign lobbying regulations. The Center for American Progress on Thursday will unveil a set of proposals calling for new limits on the political contributions of companies that have significant foreign ownership.

[Uncertain times could bring new lobbying strategies]

CAP’s ideas, which are included in a 59-page report about the potential influence of foreign shareholders and corporate owners in domestic elections and policy debates, align with a plan from Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign. CAP wants Congress to “enact a bright-line ownership” threshold, according to the report.

CAP’s plan would not affect lobbying efforts by foreign entities, but proposals already on Capitol Hill aim to step up oversight of international influence campaigns.

A bipartisan bill to revise the Foreign Agents Registration Act, a law that has found unprecedented fame during the Trump era, appears stalled in the Senate, while outside groups say they are working to gin up bipartisan support for a companion bill in the House.  

“We are still working to get commitments from Democrats who are on the House Judiciary Committee,” said Craig Holman, a lobbyist for Public Citizen. “Impeachment hearings are kind of taking up all the air out of the room.”

He said Rep. Mike Johnson, a Louisiana Republican, is still interested in such a measure, which he championed in the last Congress. Rep. Madeleine Dean, a Pennsylvania Democrat, has also expressed interest, Holman said. Two spokesmen in her office did not respond to a request for comment.  

Johnson, during a C-SPAN Newsmakers interview earlier this month, said he’d never “let go of” his objective of moving legislation to overhaul foreign lobbying laws. “I think it is a bipartisan concern and something that we can get folks across the aisle to work on together,” he said, adding that House members were working on that.

Holman called the legislation, which would give additional subpoena-like authority to the Justice Department’s FARA unit, “a very realistic bill.”

“This is something we can get done in the 116th Congress,” he said.

Stalled in Senate

Still, there’s been little sign of action in the Senate, where Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican, and Democrats Dianne Feinstein of California and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire are among the bill’s backers. The bill has been referred to the Foreign Relations Committee and no hearing has been scheduled, said the panel’s spokeswoman Suzanne B. Wrasse. 

Advocates from outside organizations with concerns about the measure say they’re continuing to monitor the process, too, and making their views known on Capitol Hill.

“We understand the concerns about protecting American democracy from foreign interference, but we want to make sure the act is targeted so it does not undermine the activism of nonprofits and others,” said Nicholas Robinson, legal adviser at the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, who said the current FARA language is overly broad and stepped up enforcement could lead to new problems for international organizations. “We’re concerned about how the act can be weaponized against nonprofits and activists.”

Last year, for example, House Republicans — including Utah Rep. Rob Bishop, then chairman of the Natural Resources Committee — sent letters to environmental nonprofit organizations, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and Earthjustice, suggesting they may need to register as foreign agents; Earthjustice registered under FARA in September, while the NRDC has not registered under FARA, according to filings.

FARA applies mainly to U.S. lobbyists and other representatives of foreign governments and foreign political parties, but critics say it is so vaguely written that, amid increasing enforcement, it could rope in organizations that receive foreign funding.

Warren’s campaign says on its website that it seeks to ban foreign corporate influence in U.S. elections, which is a similar aim of the Center for American Progress’ new proposals. (CAP has not endorsed Warren or any Democrat running for the party’s White House nomination.)

Foreign ownership threshold

Under CAP’s proposals, companies would not be allowed to spend unlimited sums on federal, state and local electioneering efforts if a single foreign entity owns or controls at least 1 percent of a company, or if multiple foreign entities own or control at least 5 percent of a corporation. It would not, however, limit the lobbying activities by such companies, nor would it affect such companies’ political action committees, which are funded by the donations of individual employees.  

CAP’s proposal would apply to U.S.-based companies, as well as U.S. subsidiaries of foreign corporations.

“One of the big problems today that is not talked about enough is this issue of foreigners influencing our elections via U.S. companies in which the foreigners own stock, and it’s essentially a loophole through which foreign influence comes into our elections,” said Michael Sozan, a senior fellow at CAP. He added that foreign investors own approximately 35 percent of corporate stock in the United States, though he noted that his group was not interested in curbing those investments, only such companies’ direct spending on elections.

Such a plan would apply to corporate donations to super PACs or nonprofit organizations, such as trade associations, that engage in electioneering activities. Companies that meet the thresholds could still pay dues to trade associations, though, Sozan noted.  

“Corporations that are foreign influenced should not be allowed to spend unlimited amounts of money from their corporate treasuries to influence our elections and our policies,” he said.

Corrected Nov. 22, 2019, 12:57 p.m. ¦ This story has been corrected to reflect that Earthjustice registered as a foreign agent in September 2019.

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