By BEN FREEMAN, LYDIA DENNETT, and DAHNA BLACK
Every year foreign governments spend hundreds of millions of dollars hiring lobbying and public relations firms to increase their influence in the United States. Lobbyists working on behalf of these foreign governments (foreign lobbyists) contact policymakers thousands of times annually, and the members of the “Super Committee” are no exception. Through lobbyists, foreign governments safeguard their interests in Washington. This is critically important now as some of the proposals currently being considered, such as cuts to foreign aid and U.S. subsidies to the security of foreign nations, would affect foreign interests. Foreign lobbyists have taken note and are already beginning their efforts to shape the work of the Super Committee.
For instance, lobbyists for South Korea have muscled in on Super Committee action. The top foreign lobbying firm in the U.S., Patton Boggs, LLP, was hired in February 2010 on behalf of both the non-profit Korean International Trade Association and the Embassy of South Korea to advocate for passage of the U.S.-Korea free trade agreement. They targeted committee co-chair Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) in a September 14, 2011 letter at least partly on the basis of her work on the Super Committee. The letter from Patton Boggs’ senior partner Thomas Hale Boggs, Jr., to Murray states:
Ambassador Han would like to discuss the status of the pending US-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA), including in the context of the ongoing deficit reduction discussions in which you play a crucial role…The Ambassador is anxious to discuss these matters, as well as to update you on KORUS's benefits for the United States, particularly the State of Washington.
Senator Murray’s office confirmed that her office met with lobbysts with Patton Boggs on September 29, according to an article by Janie Lorber of Roll Call. Lorber noted that the Super Committee “itself is not expected to address the pending deals in its budget reduction proposal, but Murray, who has supported past free-trade deals, could have access to information about how the timing of the debt deliberations could affect passage of the free-trade agreements.”
Foreign Lobbyists Have Lobbied Current Super Committee Members in the Past
Murray’s meeting with foreign lobbyists is not unique: in the past year, all twelve members of the Super Committee have been contacted by at least one foreign lobbyist. Over that same period, all but two members, Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and Representative Jeb Hensarling (R-TX), have received campaign contributions from foreign lobbyists, according to Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) records.
From contacting Representative Dave Camp (R-MI) about promoting the sale of F-16’s to Taiwan, to meeting with Senator Rob Portman’s (R-OH) chief of staff to promote U.S.-Philippines trade legislation, the agents of foreign governments have had these legislators in their cross-hairs.
Based upon FARA records filed in 2011, members of the Super Committee have also received more than $50,000 in direct campaign contributions from foreign lobbyists, and untold more through fundraisers held by these lobbying firms. While this is just a fraction of the more than $6 million the members of the Super Committee have raised in the 2012 election cycle, according to data from the non-profit Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), the timing of these contributions raises questions as they often coincide with Congressional contacts.
Campaign Contributions by Foreign Lobbyists Draw Deeper Scrutiny
It’s a well-known fact that contributions can buy access and influence, and that lobbyists contribute to those who already support their positions. The relationships between members of the Super Committee and foreign lobbyists are no exception.
On March 3, 2011 the lobbying firm Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer and Feld, LLP (Akin, Gump) contacted Senator Max Baucus’s (D-MT) office on behalf of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Patton Boggs contacted Baucus’s office about a potential trip to the UAE. A spokesperson for Baucus told Roll Call he did not go to the UAE.
That Patton Boggs turned to Baucus to assist their foreign client is not surprising given his history of supporting the UAE. The surprising part is that the very same day the firm met with Baucus they made a $1,200 in-kind contribution to pay for a fundraiser on behalf of Baucus’s campaign committee. Just two days prior, on March 1st, foreign lobbyists at the firm made a $1,000 contribution to the Senator, and the day before that they made another $1,000 contribution, according to Department of Justice records.
During the first week of March, Baucus received thousands of dollars more from Akin, Gump lobbyists not working as foreign agents, according to CRP contribution data. Additionally, March 3rd was the first, and only, time Akin, Gump reported contacting Baucus’s office on behalf of a foreign client, and 90% of all the contributions Akin, Gump lobbyists made to Baucus this year occurred within two weeks of March 3rd.
Akin, Gump, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment in response to POGO’s queries. POGO requested info the role campaign contributions play in Akin, Gump’s advocacy on behalf of foreign clients and on whether the same Akin, Gump lobbyists who made contributions to Baucus (or whether Akin, Gump’s PAC made the contributions) were the same ones who met with him on March 3rd.
Congressman James Clyburn (D-SC) and Patton Boggs, have a similar track record. The firm contacted Clyburn’s office about the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement more than any other representative in the past year and these contacts often coincided with campaign contributions the firm made to Clyburn. For example, on September 21, 2010 Patton Boggs lobbyists met with a Clyburn staffer to discuss the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement. The following day, Patton Boggs PAC made a $5,000 contribution to the Senator, and the day after that Clyburn received an additional $500 from a Patton Boggs foreign lobbyist – a week later the firm got a face-to-face meeting with Clyburn to discuss the U.S.-Korea free trade agreement.
Clyburn may have had extra encouragement to take this meeting from Patton Boggs employees who don’t work as foreign lobbyists. In addition to the $5,500 Clyburn received from the firms’ PAC and a foreign lobbyist, employees of the firm made contributions to Clyburn of $500 on September 27th and $1,000 on the 30th, the same day that the Congressman met with their Patton Boggs colleagues. Prior to these contributions in September neither Patton Boggs PAC nor any of its employees had made a contribution to Clyburn in more than six months, according to CRP data. Yet, in just nine days, from the time Patton Boggs first met with Clyburn’s associates until the day they met with the Representative himself, Clyburn received $7,000 in direct contributions from Patton Boggs and its employees.
Clyburn continued to promote the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement. Just this past April, the Korean Ambassador to the U.S., Han Duk-soo, and Clyburn attended a fundraiser in the Representative’s home district in South Carolina, where sponsors contributed up to $5,000. With echoes of lobbyist Tommy Boggs’ September 2011 letter to Senator Murray cited earlier, at the event the Korean Ambassador to the U.S. gave a keynote address on “the U.S.-Korea free trade agreement and the benefits for South Carolina's economy.”
Patton Boggs declined to comment.
A Loophole for Contributions from Foreign Nationals?
Was it just a coincidence that within days of meeting with Clyburn to discuss the Korea Free Trade Agreement Patton Boggs contributed $7,000 to his campaign? Were the contributions Baucus received from Akin, Gump completely independent of the United Arab Emirates? Perhaps, and it would be incredibly difficult to prove otherwise. While the relationships between Clyburn, Baucus and foreign lobbyists are not shining examples of democracy in America, these exchanges are considered legal based upon current campaign finance and foreign lobbying regulations. Lobbyists working on behalf of foreign governments, just like any other U.S. citizen, are free to make political contributions. Their foreign clients, however, are explicitly prohibited from making any political contributions in the United States.
These foreign lobbying relationships then lead to a legal paradox – foreign entities hire agents who can commit acts they otherwise legally could not. Each year, foreign lobbyists are paid hundreds of millions of dollars by their foreign clients and they make millions of dollars in contributions to politicians. Yet American citizens are asked to naively believe that foreign lobbyists never use foreign money to influence the U.S. political process.
This isn’t just a theoretical issue. Earlier this year, the U.S. Justice Department charged Syed Ghulam Nabi Fai, 62, a U.S. citizen and director of the Kashmiri American Center (also referred to as the Kashmir Center), with failure to register under the FARA. U.S. Attorney Neil MacBride, in a press release, said Fai’s “handlers in Pakistan allegedly funneled millions through the Kashmir Center to contribute to U.S. elected officials.” So far these elected officials are not being targeted by the Justice Department. The press release notes that “there is no evidence that any elected official who received financial contributions from Fai or the KAC was aware that the money originated from any part of the Pakistani government.”
Meanwhile, as the Super Committee works to propose cutting at least $1.2 trillion dollars from the Federal deficit before November 23, 2011, American taxpayers are left to wonder whether the Super Committee’s recommendations will be as foreign as this influence.
Ben Freeman is the POGO National Security Fellow. Lydia Dennett is a POGO Intern. Dahna Black is a POGO Policy Fellow.
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