The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Bipartisan bill aims to curb foreign influence in U.S. democracy

A trio of measures — addressing lobbying, gifts and online donations — is backed by a group with wide-ranging ideologies

Retired four-star Marine Gen. John R. Allen, seen in 2012. A federal investigation is looking into whether Allen lobbied on Qatar’s behalf without disclosing his activities, as required under federal law. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

A House bill introduced Thursday seeks to curb foreign influence in U.S. democracy by imposing a lifetime ban on members of Congress, senior military leaders and senior executive branch officials from lobbying for a foreign government or political party, among other measures.

The legislation would also compel tax-exempt groups, including think tanks, to disclose high-dollar donations and gifts from foreign powers and require political campaigns to verify that donors have a valid U.S. address, using the three-digit CVV code on the back of credit cards.

The proposed measures, which have not been previously reported, respond to growing concern on Capitol Hill that key components of the government and civil society remain susceptible to foreign interference, six years after the Kremlin mounted a campaign to influence the 2016 presidential election.

The legislation addresses issues brought to light more recently by the federal probe into whether retired four-star Marine Gen. John R. Allen, who resigned over the weekend as president of the Brookings Institution, lobbied on Qatar’s behalf without disclosing his activities as required under federal law. And the proposals come amid stepped-up enforcement by the Justice Department of the Foreign Agents Registration Act, including the decision last month to sue Steve Wynn, a developer and Republican megadonor, to compel him to register as an agent of China.

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The bill has bipartisan backing. Its lead sponsor is Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat and Marine veteran from a conservative-leaning district in Maine, who said one of the chief problems with the U.S. political system is that “corruption is either completely legal or punished with slaps on the wrist.” An aide to Golden said the congressman’s effort to find consensus for a targeted package of anti-corruption measures is in response to the GOP’s rejection of a broader voting rights, elections and ethics bill, known as H.R. 1.

Joining Golden in introducing the legislation were members as disparate as Reps. Katie Porter of California, a liberal consumer protection attorney and rising Democratic star, and Paul A. Gosar of Arizona, a Republican acolyte of former president Donald Trump who has spread conspiracy theories about everything from election security to the recent school shooting in Uvalde, Tex. Rep. Lance Gooden (R-Tex.) is also a sponsor.

In a statement endorsing Thursday’s legislation, Gosar emphasized a measure that seeks greater transparency in online campaign donations. “Full disclosure of online contributions will ensure that the American people know the sources of campaign money and will greatly assist with maintaining a system of free and fair elections,” he said.

Federal law already prohibits contributions from foreign nationals in any federal, state or local election. But the bill’s sponsors say there are loopholes, including the absence of a requirement that campaigns use industry-standard tools to verify the details of online contributions.

Porter stressed the bipartisan relevance of the legislation. “Americans distrust government no matter which party is in power,” she said.

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The measures, while not citing Allen or any other person, are made acutely necessary by recent allegations, the bill’s sponsors say.

Allen, who served as the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan from 2011 to 2013, claimed that his initial contact with a political donor now serving a 12-year prison sentence related to the creation of a military advisement board for the government of Qatar, according to a search warrant filed in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.

Court records show the inquiry is focused on whether Allen secretly urged the Trump administration to temper its criticism of Qatar in 2017, when the country faced sanctions in connection with accusations of supporting Islamist extremism.

A spokesman for Allen said the retired general “has done nothing improper or unlawful, has never acted as an agent of Qatar or any foreign government or principal, and has never obstructed justice.”

The bill’s sponsors also point to a 2020 study from the D.C.-based Center for International Policy that found that the nation’s premier think tanks received at least $174 million in funding from foreign powers between 2014 and 2018. Among those receiving the most foreign funding, according to the analysis, was Brookings.

A Brookings spokesman said the think tank “has strong independence policies to ensure no financial supporter influences the research findings or policy recommendations of its experts.” Following a review in 2019, Brookings started to subject foreign donors to enhanced scrutiny, including an assessment of the funder’s “democratic status and track record on support to independent civil society,” the spokesman said.

Most think tanks organized as nonprofits are under no obligation to disclose their donors, though some, such as Brookings, do so voluntarily. The legislation from Golden and others would require disclosure of gifts and donations from foreign powers greater than $50,000 in a given year.