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Opinion It’s time to shut down the foreign dictator lobbying racket

The Hikvision headquarters in Hangzhou, China. (Qilai Shen/Bloomberg News)

Shilling for anti-U.S. dictatorships is one of Washington’s most time-honored bipartisan traditions. But what if getting paid to lobby for the United States’ enemies — who happen to be the world’s worst tyrants — were no longer allowed? A bill pending in Congress is bringing Republicans and Democrats together in an effort to make immoral financial arrangements with these regimes illegal as well.

When foreign dictatorships try to affect U.S. politics and policy, they often hire former U.S. officials and lawmakers to launder and promote their agenda by petitioning our government, Congress and society writ large. Under the current rules, so long as Americans who are advocating for foreign governments, politicians and corporations disclose these activities, they can legally be paid to work against America’s interests. The theory underpinning the current system was that transparency would lead to accountability, which would in turn protect our democracy.

That system is clearly failing. President Donald Trump’s campaign chairman, one of his top lawyers and his first national security adviser have all been credibly accused of violating the foreign agent registration rules. Tony Podesta, the brother of President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff (who is also a current adviser to President Biden) reportedly was paid $1 million to lobby the Biden administration on behalf of the sanctioned Chinese tech company Huawei. Former GOP House speaker John Boehner works for a lobbying firm that represents the Chinese Embassy. Former Republican senator David Vitter lobbies for a Chinese company called Hikvision that has been accused by the U.S. government of complicity in genocide — as did former senior Democratic senator Barbara Boxer, until she got embarrassed and quit.

Pushing the agenda of the United States’ adversaries is big business in Washington. The huge scale of these relationships became painfully clear after Russian President Vladimir Putin attacked Ukraine, when the U.S. government expanded sanctions against Putin’s cronies, sending the D.C. lobbying industry scrambling. Big lobbying firms such as BGR, Squire Patton Boggs, the Glover Park Group, Mercury Public Affairs and many others have been taking millions from Russian oligarchs, Russian banks or Chinese tech companies to help their clients navigate the risk of U.S. sanctions, try to shape U.S. laws and influence U.S. public opinion.

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These U.S. firms will often defend their actions as legal and protected on free-speech grounds. Nobody is arguing that exercising free speech, even on behalf of an anti-U.S. dictatorship, should be illegal. But neither do Americans have an explicit right to profit from working for the United States’ enemies.

That’s the thinking behind the Stop Helping Adversaries Manipulate Everything Act, also known as the Shame Act. The title harks back to a time in Washington when lobbyists had at least a little shame and would stop taking money from despots when they committed atrocities. But if the lobbying industry once had any shame, those days are long gone.

The new bipartisan bill would bar any American from taking money from any foreign adversary of the United States or any of their agents for lobbying, public relations or representational services of any kind. This would also ban Americans from being paid to represent any foreign company that is either directly or indirectly controlled by a foreign adversary.

The legislation would amend both the Foreign Agents Registration Act and the Lobbying Disclosure Act and would apply to all countries on the Commerce Department’s official list of “foreign adversaries,” which currently includes China (including Hong Kong), Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela.

Introduced Tuesday, the bill has two Republican and two Democratic co-sponsors: Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), Republican Study Committee Chairman Jim Banks (R-Ind.), Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) and Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.).

“D.C. lobbying firms are making millions from our greatest adversaries,” Banks told me. “The American people are taking it from all sides. Nobody is sticking up for them, they’re fed up, and this has got to stop. It’s time to drain the swamp.”

The RSC, a group of more than 150 conservative members, joined with several other organizations to support the bill, including the Helsinki Commission (of which Cohen is co-chairman), the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley’s advocacy group Stand for America, Transparency International U.S. and the Syrian Emergency Task Force.

A big part of the foreign malign influence problem is that much of this work is directed at influencing the American people, Cohen told me, through promotion of propaganda and disinformation. The legislation would also apply to celebrities who push the propaganda of foreign adversaries.

“It’s important that we deter all Americans from doing the work of U.S. adversaries,” Cohen said. “We must disincentivize this type of work, and that begins with cutting off the money.”

Of course, these former officials and celebrities could still support whatever tyrant they like — they just wouldn’t be able to charge for it anymore.

“Free speech is a bedrock of our Constitution, but that has never meant massively profiting on the corruption of the likes of the Chinese Communist Party, the terrorist regime in Tehran, war criminal Putin, and mass murderer Bashar al-Assad,” Wilson told me.

Everyone knows why this bill faces an uphill climb in Congress: because so many lawmakers plan to shill for dictators after leaving office. But everyone also knows that containing despotic influence in Washington is the right thing to do — and that it is long overdue. We have to drain the foreign dictator influence swamp, once and for all.

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