House Republicans took a significant step Wednesday in an effort to overhaul the nation’s foreign lobbying disclosure regulations amid scandals in the influence sector.
The House Judiciary Committee advanced as amended, 15-6 along party lines, the measure that would give the Justice Department new subpoena-like investigative powers. That new authority sparked controversy among the panel’s Democrats.
Though the measure has two Democratic co-sponsors and most of the panel’s Democrats said they supported the idea of an overhaul, that still wasn’t enough to stop deep partisan divisions from emerging during debate.
Democrats complained that the majority party was moving too quickly on the bill, bypassing hearings. They chided Republicans for not taking on other high-profile matters such as immigration and criminal justice overhauls and examining Russian interference into the 2016 elections.
New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the committee’s top Democrat, said the foreign lobbying bill was not “yet ripe for markup, as it might raise several constitutional and policy questions that should give us some pause before we move forward.”
Louisiana GOP Rep. Mike Johnson, the bill’s lead sponsor, introduced the measure last fall after the indictments of Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, two ex-lobbyists and onetime Trump campaign insiders.
Manafort and Gates were charged with violating the 1938 Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, in an indictment stemming from the probe by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, whose investigation into potential Russian ties to the Trump campaign has helped put an unprecedented spotlight on a previously little-known law.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley of Iowa also introduced a companion bill, but his spokesman did not respond to a request about whether any hearings or actions were forthcoming in that chamber.
Manafort and Gates’ trial is expected to start this fall, after a federal judge on Tuesday rejected prosecutors’ request for a spring trial date.
Another Trump insider, Michael Flynn, who briefly served as President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, later filed retroactive foreign lobbying disclosures. Flynn signed a plea agreement last year as part of the Mueller investigation.
The probe also led to the apparent downfall of the Podesta Group, the lobbying firm of Democrat Tony Podesta.
The main policy debate at House Judiciary was over the bill’s provision to grant new subpoena-like authority to the Justice Department’s FARA unit.
Rep. David Cicilline offered several amendments, all of which were rejected, including one that would have swapped the original bill for his own foreign lobbying overhaul. The Rhode Island Democrat said he was trying to restrict the bill’s new authority to civil matters only and not criminal ones.
Rep. Hank Johnson said he backed Cicilline’s changes and was concerned about giving more authority to government bureaucrats. The Georgia Democrat called for hearings to examine any potential impact the bill could have on civil liberties and constitutional protections.
“Why are we rushing forward to give this kind of power to the Department of Justice under the Trump administration which is abusing — showing disrespect for — the rule of law?” Hank Johnson said.
Outside observers said the back-and-forth showed how politics had seeped into the foreign lobbying debate, even as most lawmakers appeared to agree in theory that the 1938 law was in need of an update.
“DOJ’s career staff have long wanted the authority to investigate FARA violations more aggressively, and the Democratic-aligned government reform community has generally agreed,” said Rob Kelner, a partner at Covington & Burling, who heads the firm’s FARA practice and is Flynn’s attorney. “So it was a bit of a role reversal to see Judiciary Committee Democrats opposing enhanced FARA enforcement authority.”
Most of the committee’s Democrats said they wanted to work with Republicans to overhaul the foreign lobbying law, but some of the partisan sparring took on a more overtly contentious tone.
For example, Texas Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee offered an amendment to rename the bill the “No More Paul Manaforts or Michael Flynns Act.” Her amendment was rejected.
The measure, if enacted, could have sweeping consequences for lobbyists and other representatives of foreign governments and political parties as well as of foreign corporations and nonprofit organizations. The bill would scrap a longstanding exception allowing lobbyists for foreign corporations and nonprofits to register under the less burdensome congressional lobbying regime.
One of two amendments that the panel approved by voice vote was offered by its chief sponsor Mike Johnson and dealt largely with revising a schedule for the Justice Department to provide a report to Congress within one year of enactment. The other amendment, from Washington Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal, would compel the DOJ to update Congress on the steps it is taking to make the FARA database searchable and downloadable.
“One of the worst kept secrets in Washington is how frequently lobbyists violate our foreign registration laws by accepting millions of dollars from foreign principals without disclosing a thing about those relationships,” Mike Johnson said, while noting the bill is supported by watchdog groups such as Common Cause, Issue One and Public Citizen.