With a new government following the familiar playbook of promising to clean up Washington, foreign lobbying reform is once again all the rage.
In one of his first official acts, President Joe Biden introduced an ethics pledge that aims to further restrict the so-called revolving door between government and the private sector. The executive order bars senior government officials from lobbying their colleagues within two years of leaving government while also restricting their involvement with matters on which they lobbied prior to their appointment.
Meanwhile, in their highly symbolic first bill for the new Congress, House Democrats have included a number of long-overdue reforms to the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), the decades-old anti-propaganda law that regulates foreign lobbying in the US. The bill, H.R. 1: For the People Act of 2021, would notably impose new civil monetary penalties for FARA violations, establish a FARA investigation and enforcement unit within the Department of Justice, and improve public access to the department’s electronic lobbying database — a reform originally recommended by Reps. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) and Ken Buck (D-Colo.) in 2019.
The congressional push continued on Jan. 22, when Reps. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) and John Katko (R-N.Y.) reintroduced their Foreign Agent Disclosure Enhancement (FADE) Act, the first stand-alone piece of FARA legislation introduced in the 117th session of Congress. The bill would notably require that the mandatory disclaimers for content promoted by foreign agents be located within social media posts, so that the posts will continue to carry the warning label when shared with others.
“Disclaimers on misleading, foreign-backed social media posts are often non-existent, particularly when content is shared or linked,” Spanberger explained in a press release. “In these instances, social media works as a rumor mill for disinformation.”
Prior to President Donald Trump‘s election, foreign lobbying was largely a back-burner issue in US politics. With the possible exception of former Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who repeatedly introduced legislation to limit the ability of former high-ranking government officials to go work for foreign actors, Congress had little interest.
But Russia’s interference in the 2016 election changed all that, turning FARA into something of a household name. The Russia investigation by former FBI Director Robert Mueller led to multiple indictments for lobbying law violations, triggering what some called a “FARA frenzy.”
The law’s newfound fame also shined a bright light on its shortcomings. As a disclosure statute born in 1938 when TVs were rare, the internet was decades away and tik-tok was just the sound the grandfather clock made, the past four years demonstrated just how ill-equipped FARA is to successfully counter foreign interference in the digital age.
Indeed, despite increased prosecutions under an act that had largely been unenforced for 50 years, FARA remains riddled with loopholes and lax enforcement that hinder efforts to increase transparency of foreign influence in the United States. The Senate Intelligence Committee’s bipartisan report on Russian electoral interference for example found that “while recent enforcement efforts have resulted in several successful criminal prosecutions” the panel identified “numerous incidents where FARA registrations were excessively delayed, retroactive, incomplete, inaccurate, or otherwise insufficient to accomplish the objectives of the law.” This echoed similar findings from the US Justice Department’s 2016 audit of FARA and a 2014 Project On Government Oversight (POGO) investigation.
Despite the public identification of these glaring weaknesses, the clear vulnerabilities they leave open in the American political system, and the more than 20 pieces of FARA reform legislation that have been introduced in Congress since the 2016 election, Congress has been unable to pass a single foreign lobbying bill in the past four years.
What’s different now? A lot.
First, Democratic control of both the House and Senate increases the likelihood of passing FARA legislation. Over the past two years, the Democratic-controlled House has been the launching pad for most reform proposals.
To be sure, many of these bills in both the House and Senate have been bipartisan. Still, Democratic control of both chambers undoubtedly increases the likelihood of some reforms passing, particularly given the early focus on FARA found in H.R. 1.
Second, President Biden, unlike his predecessor, has indicated an interest in the issue. On the campaign trail he proposed a — perhaps misguided — ban on all foreign lobbying. He appears to have since tempered that stance, instead focusing on the revolving door restrictions within his ethics pledge.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Trump is not only gone from the White House but is also being impeached over his role in fueling the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol — not for his alleged foreign entanglements. This could prove the key to unlocking congressional action, as many otherwise bipartisan reform efforts faltered in recent years as foreign influence became a partisan issue given allegations — and a lot of credible evidence — tying the Trump campaign and administration to foreign meddling.
With Trump gone, Republicans now have greater political freedom to act. As one Republican congressional staffer who spoke on condition of anonymity told me, “We now have the political space to finally fix FARA.”