Few issues in Washington can claim to be truly bipartisan today. Education? Nice try. Healthcare? Not a chance. Climate change? Please. That’s why widespread bipartisan support for combating foreign influence is so striking. Sure, Republicans and Democrats vehemently disagree about President Trump’s interactions with foreign powers, as has been made abundantly clear throughout the impeachment hearings. But, take the president’s name out of the discussion and Republicans and Democrats have eagerly and repeatedly cozied up to each other when it comes to fighting foreign influence in American democracy. They’ve especially agreed about the need to improve the law that regulates most foreign influence in America: the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).
Ironically though, this extraordinary bipartisan support for FARA reform in Congress is matched by an equally bipartisan fervor to profit from foreign influence in the U.S. The foreign influence industry in America is thriving, and both parties are cashing in, while American foreign policy foots the bill.
From Congress to K Street Foreign Lobbyists
Many former Senators, Representatives, and their staff are now profiting from the foreign influence industry and there have recently been a number of high-profile examples from both sides of the aisle.
On the Republican side, Buck McKeon, the former GOP congressman from California who once chaired the House Armed Services Committee, started The McKeon Group after leaving office in 2015. One of his firm’s first clients was the government of Saudi Arabia, which has since paid his firm more than half a million dollars. McKeon has earned his keep by repeatedly promoting arm sales to the Kingdom, including at least $500 million in precision guided munitions, the same type of weapons that have been used by the Saudis in strikes that have killed scores of civilians in Yemen.
Ed Royce, the former Republican chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC), similarly went to work for a firm—Brownstein, Hyatt, Farber, Schreck—on the Saudi payroll shortly after leaving office. The Saudi government paid Brownstein, Hyatt nearly $2 million in 2018 alone, more than half of which the firm received from the Saudis just two days after the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Turkey. Brownstein, Hyatt explains that Royce is the Policy Director at the firm and while in Congress he “worked hard to pass legislation targeting issues of global concern.” The firm does not mention that while in Congress, Royce also once read Saudi lobbyists’ talking points verbatim on the House floor.
Republicans certainly haven’t been alone in the journey from elected official to lobbying for foreign powers. Democrats have gone through this foreign influence revolving door in droves, as well. Former Representative Jim Moran (D-Va.), for example, once represented constituents in Falls Church and Alexandria, but is now paid to represent the Qataris. Last year Moran sought to convince former colleagues on Capitol Hill to put pressure on the Saudis on behalf of Qatar. According to a report in The Daily Beast, Moran contacted Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.) last year requesting he send a letter to the Saudi ambassador urging him to ease travel restrictions between the two countries. Crist not only complied, but also several large portions of his letter read verbatim from Moran’s suggested language. Moran even wrote a $1,000 check to Crist’s reelection campaign using funds from his own campaign committee, an active committee from more than four years after he served in office. According to the Daily Beast, Moran is one of at least 17 former members of Congress who are registered as foreign agents working on behalf of foreign governments.
A recent McClatchy analysis of lobbying records found this dynamic to be part of a larger pattern of going from working in Congress to lobbying it, with nearly 120 former members and senior staffers in just the past 4 years going through the revolving door to lobby their former colleagues.
While quickly turning congressional insights and access into profit raises concerns for lobbyists representing U.S. clients, it should raise even more when lobbyists are being paid by foreign powers. Many of the former members of Congress and their staff that now work as foreign agents once had government security clearances and were trusted with our nation’s secrets on a daily basis. Though there are laws limiting how soon these members and staff can lobby their former colleagues, they’re riddled with loopholes and, in many cases, just not enforced.
Foreign Agent Funds to Campaign Coffers
While foreign powers are garnering considerable influence by hiring former elected officials, their agents also wield substantial power by making sizeable campaign contributions to both parties. In fact, Democrats and Republicans receive millions in campaign contributions from foreign agents every year.
Prior to the 2016 elections, Democrats and Republicans received more than $10 million from registered foreign agents and their firms, according to an investigation by Maplight and International Business Times (IBT). More than $4 million came from direct contributions and another $5.9 million came from foreign agents and their firms “bundling”—combining contributions from others through fundraising dinners and similar activities.
The Maplight/IBT analysis showed that this money went towards enriching the campaigns of both Democratic and Republican candidates in 2016. The top three recipients were all Democrats and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign topped the list with $376,332 in contributions from foreign agents and their firms.
But, Republicans were well represented amongst the top recipients of foreign agent funds too. For example, Senator Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) campaign received more than a hundred thousand dollars from foreign agents and their firms, and former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) campaign raked in $63,050 from foreign agents and their firms.
In some cases, foreign agents even make campaign contributions to members of Congress on the exact same day they’re contacting them on behalf of a foreign power. As the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative, which I direct, at the Center for International Policy has found, lobbyists working for Saudi Arabia have done this nearly twenty times in just the last two years. These same-day contacts and contributions went to members of both parties, including Senators Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.), for example.
Any lobbyist, let alone one working for a foreign government, making a contribution to a politician’s campaign on the same day they’re contacting that politician or their staff might raise suspicion, but this practice is actually perfectly legal. While foreign nationals are prohibited from making campaign contributions in U.S. elections, FARA filings where agents report these contributions, explicitly state that they are made “from your own funds and on your own behalf,” ostensibly protecting foreign agents from any accusation that they’re serving as conduits for foreign money to get into U.S. elections.
The Cost of Cashing in on the Foreign Influence Industry
While the foreign influence industry has enriched many, it makes for poor foreign policy. As foreign lobbyists are writing our representatives’ speeches, and even writing our laws, this considerable influence largely pushes U.S. foreign policy in a much more militarized and interventionist direction. Two of the biggest spenders on influence in America—Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—have, for years, focused their lobbying and public relations efforts on maintaining U.S. military support for their war in Yemen and continuing the flow of U.S. military weaponry to both countries. The top spenders on FARA registered agents, South Korea and Japan, devote considerable attention to maintaining U.S. military support, including issues related to the more than 92,000 Defense Department personnel stationed in both countries, providing them with huge economic and security benefits, at considerable cost to U.S. taxpayers. Israel is the next highest spending nation, which lobbies vigorously to remain the largest recipient of U.S. weapons—annually receiving more than $3 billion in military assistance.
While the merits of each of these individual foreign policy decisions is certainly debatable, the impact each of these countries’ lobbies has in ensuring them shouldn’t be. It’s abundantly clear that the agents of foreign governments are moving U.S. foreign policy in a more active, militarized, and interventionist direction, and both parties are to blame. It’s long past time to replace this bipartisan consensus to cash in on foreign influence that promotes a more militarized U.S. foreign policy, with a non-partisan push to increase transparency and accountability of foreign influence in America.