The well-traveled road from member of Congress to foreign agent
Earlier this month, a bipartisan bill was introduced in Congress that, among other important provisions to combat undue foreign influence in politics, would ban former members of Congress from lobbying on behalf of foreign governments.
New Quincy Institute research finds that this congressional action is long overdue as the revolving door from Congress to lobbying on behalf of foreign interests has been spinning feverishly.
It’s no secret that when members of Congress leave office, they turn to one profession above all others: lobbying. Year in and year out, it’s the same story of former elected officials selling their connections and knowledge of how to make things happen (or not happen) in Washington to high-paying special interests. While this lobbying is often done on behalf of American interests — like big pharmaceutical, banking, or weapons firms — former lawmakers have been lobbying on behalf of foreign interests more and more often in recent years.
We analyzed Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) filings since 2000 and found that at least 90 former members of Congress have registered as foreign agents, representing nearly half (87) of all countries in the world, and the trend has only become more pronounced in recent years. This raises critically important questions for U.S. national interests and highlights the importance of legislation to combat the potential risks of former members of Congress working for foreign interests.
The heat-map below highlights countries where foreign interests — often, though not always, foreign governments — have been represented by FARA registrants who were previously members of Congress since 2000. Dark red countries had more former members working on behalf of interests there.
As the map indicates, the countries most represented by former lawmakers are in the Middle East and Asia.
Chinese interests, for example, employed at least eight former members of Congress as lobbyists on their behalf. Four lobbied for Hikvision, a Chinese state-owned company that provides surveillance equipment that is used to monitor Uighur populations, while another lobbied on behalf of partially state-owned artificial intelligence company iFlytek. Both companies were blacklisted by the U.S. government in 2019.
The lobbyists working on their behalf included former Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), Rep. Toby Moffet (D-Conn.), and Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.). Former Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) also registered as a foreign agent to represent Hikvision, but quit four days later due to public outrage. In a statement, Sen. Boxer wrote that “due to the intense response to my registration, I have determined that my continued involvement has become a negative distraction for the effort so I will be deregistering.”
These former lawmakers contributed to China’s robust foreign influence operation in the United States. And according to an OpenSecrets analysis of FARA filings, China has spent more on FARA registrants than any country since 2016. As spending has accelerated, so has China’s practice of hiring former lawmakers, with seven former members representing their interests in the past four years alone.
Saudi Arabia has also benefited from the services of at least eight former members of Congress registered under FARA. All but one of these represented official government branches. The list includes former Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), who went from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to representing the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia. As a Saudi lobbyist, Coleman played a central role in working to rehabilitate Saudi Arabia’s image following the brutal 2018 murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the Saudi role in the disastrous war in Yemen. He even circulated a letter to Congress asserting “the Kingdom’s unwavering commitment to achieve peace in Yemen” three days after a Saudi airstrike killed 18 civilians there.
Another lobbyist for Saudi Arabia and former member — Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.) — met with his former House colleague Ed Royce (R-Calif.), to whose reelection campaign he contributed $2,000, on multiple occasions when Royce was serving as chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. While still in Congress, Royce also repeated nearly verbatim talking points provided to him by another of the Kingdom’s lobbyists in a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives during a debate on the future of U.S. support for Riyadh’s war in Yemen. Four years later, he registered as a foreign agent for Saudi Arabia.
While China and Saudi Arabia’s influence operations benefited from a cadre of former members, they were far from the most represented by former elected officials. That distinction goes to Turkish interests, which had a whopping 16 former members of Congress working on their behalf.
While some might associate Turkey’s influence in the United States with Gen. Michael Flynn (ret.), who was convicted of covert influence peddling for Turkey, Turkish interests enjoy a deep bench of former lawmakers doing perfectly legal influence work on their behalf. These include well-known figures such as former Democratic Senate leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), and Rep. Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.). Together, they aided Turkey’s efforts to influence U.S. arms policy towards Turkey, extradite exiled Turkish dissident Fetullah Gulen, and drum up opposition towards the People’s Defense Units, a predominantly Kurdish militia group in Syria that is also supported by Washington. Many of these former elected officials and their firms also lobbied against U.S. recognition of the Armenian genocide — which eventually took place in April of 2021 — warning that the “seriousness of the genocide issue” poses “a potential threat to the U.S./Turkey relationship.”
To be sure, not all of the former members we identified went on to work for authoritarian regimes. Between them, for example, South Korean and Taiwanese interests have hired more than 20 former lawmakers to represent their interests. More often than not, however, the revolving door leads directly to dictators — a majority (57 of 90) of the former members of Congress-turned-foreign lobbyists that we tracked have worked on behalf of interests in authoritarian regimes, rated as “not free” by Freedom House, including China and Saudi Arabia.
Regardless of regime type, only foreign interests with the resources to dish out millions of dollars are able to hire former members of Congress, thus creating an unequal playing field where the wealthiest foreign interests exert an outsized influence on the U.S. foreign policy process. This is true whether it’s a former lawmaker lobbying for U.S. military support for the Saudi campaign in Yemen, or a former member of Congress lobbying for arms sales or U.S. military bases in South Korea.
The risks posed by such wealthy authoritarian regimes as those most likely to have former members lobbying on their behalf are compounded by the fact that all of these former lawmakers had access to classified information and some of our nation’s most sensitive secrets. Information about overseas military deployments or operations, domestic terrorism threats, or other key intelligence in the hands of hostile foreign actors could pose serious risks to U.S. national security. While there is no evidence any of the members of Congress turned FARA registrants that we analyzed divulged classified information to foreign interests, in 2010 a former member of Congress pleaded guilty to violating FARA and lobbying on behalf of an organization with ties to international terrorism and Osama bin Laden.
Fortunately, a bipartisan group of current members of Congress has recognized these risks. Earlier this month, they introduced the “Fighting Foreign Influence Act,” which, among other important provisions, would ban former members of Congress and other senior government officials working for foreign governments and organizations.
Our research, which demonstrates why this and other legislation to address the revolving door is so desperately needed, really only scratches the surface as it doesn’t account for former members who are exempt from FARA registration if they lobby for foreign businesses and register under the much less stringent reporting requirements of the Lobbying Disclosure Act or for those who simply don’t register at all for lobbying on behalf of foreign interests.
Nonetheless, we’ve identified 90 former members who left Congress and became lobbyists for foreign interests that, more often than not, hail from wealthy authoritarian countries. They have worked to bend U.S. foreign policy to the whims of the foreign interests they represent, potentially subverting or undermining debates about U.S. national interests. That alone should be cause for public concern and congressional action.