skip to main content

S. 2039 (115th): Disclosing Foreign Influence Act

Trump’s campaign chair was criminally indicted by the special counsel last week for failing to register as a foreign agent. In the United States, a foreign agent is any American who lobbies or advocates on behalf of another country’s government. But due to several loopholes in the 1938 law requiring registration of such foreign agents, almost nobody has ever gotten punished for breaking it. Three different bills, authored by both Republicans and Democrats, aim to revamp the law for the 21st century.

##Context Paul Manafort was indicted in part for failing to register as a lobbyist on behalf of a political party in Ukraine that supports the Kremlin. He is also accused of laundering more than $12 million through offshore accounts on behalf of that political party. (This criminal indictment against Manafort was not for actions that took place on behalf of Trump or Trump’s campaign.) Under the 1938 Foreign Agents Registration Act, more commonly called by its acronym FARA, lobbyists for foreign governments are required to register with the U.S. government as such. The problem is, the law is rarely enforced. It relies on voluntary compliance, which essentially means that unregistered lobbyists would have to turn themselves in. As you may imagine, prosecution for this violation is an occurrence which happens extremely rarely. The Justice Department has only pursued criminal charges for violating FARA seven times in the past 50 years, the last time being in 2010. Three bills introduced in Congress would update the FARA law in light of recent events.

##Disclosing Foreign Influence Act The Disclosing Foreign Influence Act contains several provisions, but perhaps the most noteworthy one is eliminating the “foreign company” loophole. Under this loophole, the self-reporting requirements and punishments are both far less stringent if you’re lobbying on behalf of a foreign business, rather than a foreign government — even if that business is technically owned by a foreign government. It would also grant the Justice Department a legal tool called “civil investigative demand authority,” which is almost like a subpoena and would mean that investigators would no longer have to wait for voluntary self-disclosure to begin an investigation. “Properly enforcing our disclosure laws and ending irresponsible exemptions is critical to ​maintaining the integrity of our political system as well as our national security,” House lead sponsor Johnson said in a press release. “Our bill ensures ​that ​those working with foreign nations appropriately disclose their relationships — ensuring transparency and protecting the democratic process.” The House version was introduced on October 31 by Rep. Mike Johnson (R-LA4) as H.R. 4170. It has attracted five Republican cosponsors and awaits a vote by the House Judiciary Committee. The Senate version was introduced the same day by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) as S. 2039. It has attracted no cosponsors as of yet and awaits a vote by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

##Foreign Agent Lobbying Transparency Enforcement Act Under current law, the Justice Department can only compel the production of documents related to a person or group’s FARA compliance status once the department has officially opened a civil or criminal case. The Foreign Agent Lobbying Transparency Enforcement Act would allow the Justice Department to obtain such documents regardless of whether a case has officially been opened. That’s especially relevant because current rules in the law make it difficult for the department to open a case, or even discover that somebody is flouting the law at all. “Foreign propaganda dressed up as a legitimate news outlet is still foreign propaganda,” House lead sponsor Cicilline said in a press release. “In this era of social media and a 24/7 news cycle, the American people have a right to know when a hostile foreign government is sending propaganda right into their living room. This bill will help ensure that Vladimir Putin’s regime can’t spread fake news with such ease ever again.” The Senate version was introduced March 14 by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) as bill S. 625. It has attracted four cosponsors: three Democrats and a Republican: Sen. Todd Young of Indiana. It awaits a vote in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The House version was introduced June 7 by Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI1) as bill H.R. 2811. It has attracted three cosponsors: two Democrats and a Republican: Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL1). It awaits a vote in the House Judiciary Committee

##Foreign Agent Lobbying Transparency Enforcement Act The Foreign Agent Lobbying Transparency Enforcement Act would add civil fines and penalties to those caught afoul of the FARA law. Specifically, a minimum $2,500 for the first offense and minimum $5,000 for the second offense. Those penalties could potentially be significantly higher, as the bill also authorizes “any amount that the Attorney General determines is appropriate based on the severity and frequency of the offenses.” The legislation would also eliminate a loophole requiring disclosure of meetings by a foreign agent only if the meeting was with multiple people, allowing them to evade disclosure of individual or one-on-one meetings. The bill was introduced on July 31 by Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) as bill S. 1679. “When lobbyists hide their relationships with foreign governments, it is not just a conflict of interest — it is dangerous to our national security,” Duckworth said in a press release. “They did not know Paul Manafort had been paid tens of millions of dollars by a Kremlin-connected Ukrainian political party when he became Donald Trump’s campaign chairman.” “These former Trump staffers, like countless other lobbyists, failed to disclose their status as foreign agents and they should face the consequences instead of being allowed to continue to operate with impunity,” Duckworth continued. The bill has attracted two Democratic cosponsors and awaits a vote in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Last updated Nov 8, 2017. View all GovTrack summaries.

The summary below was written by the Congressional Research Service, which is a nonpartisan division of the Library of Congress, and was published on Oct 31, 2017.

Disclosing Foreign Influence Act

This bill amends the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938 (FARA):

to repeal an exemption from registration under FARA for agents of foreign persons and entities in the private sector who register under the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 (LDA); to require such agents, after initial registration under FARA, to file subsequent statements at the same time, and in the same frequency, as reports filed with Congress under the LDA; and to authorize the Department of Justice (DOJ) to issue civil investigative demands to compel the production of documents relevant to FARA investigations before initiating criminal or civil proceedings. DOJ must develop and implement a comprehensive strategy to improve FARA enforcement and administration. The DOJ Inspector General must review: (1) the development and implementation of a comprehensive strategy; and (2) the use, effectiveness, and potential abuse of DOJ's authority to issue civil investigative demands.

The Government Accountability Office must analyze the effectiveness of FARA enforcement and administration.