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House Panel to Consider Stronger Foreign Lobbying Rules

Some lobbyists caution against unintended consequences of bipartisan bill

Louisiana Rep. Mike Johnson says his bill ensures transparency and protects the democratic process.(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Louisiana Rep. Mike Johnson says his bill ensures transparency and protects the democratic process.(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The House Judiciary Committee plans to take up a bill on Wednesday that would overhaul the 1938 law governing foreign lobbying disclosures, but the measure’s fate in the Senate remains unclear.

The bipartisan bill could have broad implications not only for lobbyists and other U.S. representatives of foreign governments and political parties but also for those working on behalf of foreign corporations and nonprofit organizations.

Republican Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana and Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley of Iowa introduced companion bills last fall after the indictments of former lobbyists Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, who were charged with violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, by not registering as foreign agents for a Ukrainian client.

“Our bill ensures that those working with foreign nations appropriately disclose their relationships — ensuring transparency and protecting the democratic process,” Johnson said.

The House and Senate measures would give the Justice Department’s FARA unit additional authority, including subpoena-like powers. But some lobbyists and lawyers who specialize in compliance with the foreign-lobbying law say they have concerns about the bills as currently written.

A spokeswoman for the House Judiciary panel, Kathryn Rexrode, said amendments did not need to be filed in advance of the markup, so it wasn’t certain what changes might be in store for the measure. A Grassley spokesman did not respond to an inquiry about any Senate developments.

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Lobbyist Paul Miller, who runs the National Institute for Lobbying and Ethics, said his group supports the concept of better enforcement and compliance with the law.

But, he said, the way the measure is written could have unintended consequences for trade associations and lobbyists for groups and companies that do international work.

The bill would scrap a longstanding exception allowing lobbyists for foreign corporations and nonprofits to register under the less burdensome congressional lobbying regime.

“Sen. Grassley’s office been very accommodating and seems open to different approaches. We have some folks working on that,” Miller said. “But I’m not sure the House will make any changes that we want.”

Lawyer Joshua Rosenstein, who specializes in lobbying disclosure compliance matters, said the changes, especially those that relate to undoing the exemption for those registered to lobby with Congress, were causing concern on K Street.

“It’s not because industry is opposed to increased disclosure but because of the logistical burden it will place on industry,” he said.

The reports filed to the Justice Department under FARA must detail a lobbyist’s contacts to government officials, among other things that aren’t required for congressional lobbying disclosures.

Still, Rosenstein said, the bill appears to have momentum — especially on the House side.

“For it to move to markup, given everything else the House needs to deal with, including funding the government, it’s pretty unusual,” he said. “You haven’t really heard much opposition, at least publicly. You hear folks who are discussing what the language should be and what provisions need tweaking. You haven’t heard members coming out and saying, ‘This is a bad idea.’”

Claudia Hrvatin, a lawyer at King & Spalding who advises clients on FARA, said she was surprised the bill had been seemingly “fast-tracked” on the House side. “Certainly there is heightened awareness and a desire on the part of Congress to do something, and also a recognition that time has come to review this statute,” she said.

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