It’s a win-win for the think tanks, which collect millions, and for the foreign actors, who can successfully spread their influence in D.C. without scrutiny. But our democracy loses, because this system of soft corruption undermines the integrity of our policymaking process. Americans have now woken up to the risks of foreign influence on Facebook, but think-tankers are still allowed to use loopholes to testify to Congress without disclosing which foreign countries are funding them. Why are we letting them get away with it?
As a New Republic investigation released last month illustrated, even though House Democrats strengthened the conflict-of-interest disclosure requirements for witnesses last January, think-tankers and others are abusing huge loopholes to skirt the intent of the new rules. It’s easy for witnesses to claim they are representing themselves rather than their organization (which is the one actually taking cash from a foreign government) — so many witnesses do just that.
Now a group of House Republicans is trying to close that and other loopholes in congressional rules. Republican Study Committee Chairman Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) has introduced a “Truth in Testimony Reform Resolution,” which aims to close those loopholes and force congressional witnesses to disclose their foreign paymasters.
“Congress works best when all the cards are face up on the table,” Banks said in a statement. “It’s past time we expose malign foreign influence and we take the masks off those individuals working for other countries who are testifying before Congress. I urge my colleagues to pass this rule as soon as possible.”
The rule has 43 co-sponsors, all Republican. There has been some interest on the Democratic side in joining the effort, but no Democrats are publicly supporting it yet. According to House procedures, this rule could be adopted by a simple-majority vote. The Senate currently does not have any requirement for witnesses to disclose foreign funding sources at all.
The new House rule would force all congressional witnesses to disclose all foreign funding sources over $5,000, regardless of whether the witness claims to be testifying on behalf of themselves or their organization. The rule would also eliminate the loophole that compels think-tankers to disclose their foreign funding only if they define themselves as a “fiduciary of any organization or entity with an interest in the subject matter of the hearing.”
Think-tank fellows are not the only class of witnesses that would be required to disclose their foreign financial ties. Consultants, advisers and all paid associates of foreign governments, foreign political parties and foreign state-owned enterprises and their subsidiaries would now have to disclose. Foreign consulting contracts usually fall outside of legal reporting requirements under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, the main regulatory framework for representatives of foreign governments, because they claim not to include lobbying. But under the Banks rule, that distinction would go away if these experts wanted to testify on Capitol Hill.
Under the proposed rule, those witnesses who work on behalf of foreign adversaries such as Russia, China, Iran and North Korea would come in for additional scrutiny. This is meant to give extra attention to the efforts by countries including China to spread foreign influence through organizations such as think tanks. Just for one example, the China-U.S. Exchange Foundation (CUSEF), which was founded and funded by a top member of the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front influence operation, has funded several D.C. think tanks over the years.
The Banks rule is supported by leaders of those Washington think tanks that don’t take foreign funding, such as the American Foreign Policy Council and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“Policymakers in Congress need to be confident they are receiving advice that isn’t influenced or distorted by foreign or commercial interests,” said AFPC Senior Vice President Ilan Berman. “This bill will help insure the dependability of the insights that Congress receives from the experts it relies upon.”
There’s no good reason to continue letting foreign governments, much less foreign adversaries, covertly influence our legislative process and our public discourse by channeling their money through American think tanks and consulting shops. The House should pass this rule on a bipartisan basis, and the Senate should follow. Both houses of Congress, and both of our main political parties, have an interest in draining this swamp.