While the news is full of Government Shutdowns, payments to porn stars, and the assorted detritus attached to this federal administration, one rather important topic related to meddling in American politics is resting between parts. When the TV types mention Paul Manafort, think of the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Perhaps instead of machinations to protect the occupant of the Oval Office members of the 115th Congress could be addressing several bills intended to change the way we deal with foreign businesses, especially those with close ties to foreign governments, and those foreign governments themselves.
Several bills were introduced in the wake of Mr. Manafort’s arrest, and these deserve more daylight than they are getting in congressional pigeon holes.
HR 2811 and S 625: The House version of this legislation was introduced on June 7, 2017 by Representative David Cicilline (D-RI) and has three co-sponsors, two Democrats and one Republican. It falls under the jurisdiction of the House Judiciary Committee. S. 625 is an identical bill sponsored by Senator Jean Shaheen (D-NH). The official title is phrased as follows: “To preserve the integrity of American elections by providing the Attorney General with the investigative tools to identify and prosecute foreign agents who seek to circumvent Federal registration requirements and unlawfully influence the political process.” The bill text includes the revisions:
“Whenever the Attorney General has reason to believe that any person or enterprise may be in possession, custody, or control of any documentary material relevant to an investigation under this Act, the Attorney General, before initiating a civil or criminal proceeding with respect to the production of such material, may serve a written demand upon such person to produce such material for examination.”
The intent of the legislation is to require more transparency in communications inserted into public discourse from foreign countries and those agents who act on their behalf. Or, to put it less delicately, to make it more obvious when foreign governments (read: Putin) are inserting themselves into American media. As the paragraph above says, the rules of the game are changed to allow the Department of Justice the power to demand the materials (tapes, written media, etc.) before there is a civil or criminal case. The current statute only allows for accessing media items after a case is opened, thereby making it a bit more difficult to get a case underway.
If a person would care to contact a Senator or Representative in support of these bills it might be phrased: “I would hope you would co-sponsor and support (HR 2811 or S 625) to make it more difficult for foreign countries and those acting on their behalf to insert themselves in our political processes and institutions.”
To amend the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938 to promote greater transparency in the registration of persons serving as the agents of foreign principals, to provide the Attorney General with greater authority to investigate alleged violations of such Act and bring criminal and civil actions against persons who commit such violations, and for other purposes.
The bill was reported out of the Judiciary Committee on January 18, 2018 on a 15-6 vote. As indicated by ranking member Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) there has been no oversight hearing recently on FARA, and the Committee hadn’t yet considered HR 2811. In short, the bill went from introduction to mark up without a hearing in between. Democratic members of the Committee objected to the lack of detailed consideration such as an analysis of potential conflicts with the 4th Amendment, and wanted further discussion of HR 2811.
The intention of the bill is laudatory, but the “haste makes waste” commentary by Rep. Nadler should be given more careful consideration. It doesn’t do all that much good to enact legislation which has rather clear conformance issues with Constitutional provisions like the 4th Amendment. Better to amend the bill at this stage than to go through the judicial process only to find that revisions which could have been made at the outset have to be made after a conviction or civil penalty is challenged in court.
Granted there are other priorities at the moment — DACA, CHIP, and community health centers, but we should also be tracking legislation in the 115th Congress which is pertinent to the Russian interference in our political institutions and processes. Investigations are both welcome and beneficial (when they aren’t partisan and protective) but they don’t directly address issues about which we are already all too aware.
FARA should be modernized and improved. As carefully, and as promptly as possible.
Members of the Nevada congressional delegation should hear from their constituents about these bills.