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Which foreign countries spent the most to influence U.S. politics?

(Jeffrey MacMillan/For Washington Post)
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Based on what is publicly reported, foreign governments spent millions in 2013 to develop relationships within the United States with members of Congress, federal agencies and even the media, according to an analysis from the ever-informative Sunlight Foundation.

The United Arab Emirates spent a whopping $14.2 million to influence Americans, making contacts, among many others, with columnists and reporters to discuss “illicit finance issues.” Those conversations likely focused on terrorist financing and Iran sanctions, two issues that punctuated a visit Deputy Secretary of Treasury David Cohen made to the UAE early last year.

Foreign lobbying disclosures by law are much more specific than domestic ones, requiring nations to say who they contacted, when and why. For example, UAE reached out to The Washington Post’s conservative opinion blogger Jennifer Rubin in December 2013 regarding illicit finance.

The law that governs these stricter reporting requirements, the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938, was created to keep tabs on Nazi propagandists during World War II. Why reporters? The United States feared Nazi Germany was paying public relations people to spin Hitler’s motives in conversations with American journalists.

Sunlight, which just last week unveiled a new data tool called Foreign Influence Explorer, analyzed spending that “foreign entities or their paid representatives reported to the Department of Justice for 2013.” The data collected by Justice does not include “diplomatic contacts by members of a nation’s embassy.”

The governments that spend the most here on hired PR are ones that typically don’t have strong established diplomatic ties, Sunlight’s Bill Allison told the Loop. “It’s like renting a diplomatic corps when they hire foreign agents,” he said. But when there is a hot issue with international implications, like the Keystone XL pipeline or a trade treaty, there is often a spike in lobbyists representing a country’s interests, so even nations with already close relationships with the United States like Canada, Mexico and Germany rack up hefty bills.

Last year, lobbyists for Canada met with members of Congress for “relationship building.” Mexico’s lobbyists reached out to offices about the “Consular Notification Compliance Act,” legislation to protect rights of foreign national prisoners. And Germany lobbied Congress on overseas military bases, presumably since several U.S. installations there are scheduled to be closed.

Other allies like England and France didn’t register on Sunlight’s list. And Israel, which already has huge U.S. political pull through domestic organizations, spent only $1,250. Meanwhile, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the well-connected pro-Israel group based in the United States, spent close to $3 million on lobbying last year.

Generally, it’s easy to surmise that the countries spending the most on U.S. lobbyists are ones with substantial energy, trade, immigration, agriculture or other notable business dealings in Washington. But  it’s not entirely clear why some countries depend on their diplomats here to cultivate relationships while others look for outside help.

Top 10 foreign governments paying for influence in 2013

1. UAE 14.2 million

2. Germany $12 million

3. Canada $11.2 million

4. Saudi Arabia $11.1 million

5. Mexico $6.1 million

6. Morocco $4 million

7. South Korea $3.9 million

8. Republika Srpska (Bosnian Serb Republic) $2.4 million

9. Georgia $2.3 million

10.  Azerbaijan $2.3 million

Source: Sunlight Foundation