House may join money laundering, disclosure bills to gain votes

The two bills are expected to be merged and then will head to the House floor soon after Congress returns from recess

Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., attends a House Financial Services Committee hearing in the Rayburn House Office Building on July 17, 2019. Maloney is co-sponsor of one of two anti-money laundering bills that are expected to be merged soon after Congress returns. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

A pair of anti-money laundering bills are expected to be merged and head to the House floor soon after Congress returns from recess.

The House Financial Services Committee voted 55-0 in May to advance one of the bills, a measure co-sponsored by Democrat Emanuel Cleaver II of Missouri and Republican Steve Stivers of Ohio, that would update the framework used by federal investigators to combat money laundering.

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The sponsors of the other bill, Reps. Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., and Peter T. King, R-N.Y., had hoped for a similar level of GOP support, but — despite delaying a month to negotiate with ranking member Patrick T. McHenry of North Carolina — only saw 10 Republicans back the measure, which would curb the use of anonymous shell companies.

By combining the two bills, backers hope to get more Republicans to vote in favor of the corporate disclosure measure — including Stivers, who voted against it in committee. Stivers’ office did not respond to a request for comment.

Cleaver’s bill would beef up staffing at the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), encourage more coordination between FinCEN and Justice Department investigators, require the attorney general and Treasury secretary to consider raising the monetary threshold for banks filing suspicious activity reports and update the definition of “coins and currency” to include cryptocurrencies.

Maloney’s bill would require corporate entities to disclose the identities of beneficial owners to FinCEN, making it harder for bad actors to hide assets through a series of limited liability companies.

After the two bills are merged into one, it will largely match a measure introduced recently by a bipartisan group of eight Senate Banking Committee members. Backers hope strong House support for the combined Maloney-Cleaver bill either next week or the week after will pressure Senate Banking Chairman Michael D. Crapo, R-Idaho, to mark it up this year and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to schedule it on the floor soon after.

A draft of the Senate companion bill was released in June with just four co-sponsors: Mark Warner, D-Va., Tom Cotton, R-Ark., Doug Jones, D-Ala., and Mike Rounds, R-S.D.

Republicans John Kennedy of Louisiana and Jerry Moran of Kansas and Democrats Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada signed on as original co-sponsors after further negotiation. Among the changes that resulted from those talks was to define the "substantial economic benefit" requiring ownership disclosure as a 25 percent stake and a provision allowing companies to use a FinCEN-issued ID number for certain serial investors.

Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Mo., successfully added the FinCEN ID language to Maloney's bill at the House committee markup.

Crapo has held two hearings this year on anonymous shell companies but hasn’t yet publicly committed to bring a bill to markup. A spokesperson for Crapo declined to comment.

The bills have broad support among banks, law enforcement, human rights watchdogs, environmentalists and national security experts, who say they will make anti-money laundering compliance cheaper and more effective. But the National Federation of Independent Business and the American Civil Liberties Union have both come out against Maloney’s bill, saying it would be a burden on small business owners and an invasion of their privacy.

An NFIB report in September estimated complying with Maloney’s bill would cost small businesses more than $500 million a year. But a recent study of a similar beneficial ownership registry launched by the United Kingdom in 2016 showed that initial registration cost firms a median of 115 pounds and then just 2 pounds per year thereafter.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated Maloney’s bill would generate “approximately 25 million to 30 million new filings each year.”

Staffers say they are working with Treasury Department officials to get a favorable statement of administration policy on the combined measure before the House vote, and that further textual tweaks may be made before the floor vote. While Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and FinCEN Director Kenneth Blanco have both made supportive statements in general, neither has officially endorsed specific legislation.

Just how the two House bills would be merged has yet to be determined. Options include adding one to the other through an amendment or merging the two in a rule setting the terms for floor debate.

The two measures may also be accompanied on the House floor by other anti-corruption measures as part of a “kleptocracy week” theme. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., did not respond to a request for comment.

Even if the bill passes the House with a large number of Republicans, there is no guarantee that would pressure the Senate into acting. A suite of securities and banking regulation changes passed the House 406-4 in 2018, but never came to a vote in the Senate. And even if the Senate acts, the measure could face another hurdle: President Donald Trump owns about 500 LLCs, according to his Federal Election Commission financial disclosures.

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