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How Nations Attempt to Influence U.S. Members of Congress

Paul Manafort

A new book co-edited by AU School of Public Affairs Distinguished Professor James Thurber is perhaps the most timely and detailed study ever conducted of how other nations attempt to influence U.S. Members of Congress.

"Congress and Diaspora Politics: The Influence of Ethnic and Foreign Lobbying," published in 2018 by SUNY Press, sets out to explicate the three major dynamics covered – in theory, at least – by the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), which was enacted in 1938 to regulate the pro-Nazi groups that were lobbying legislators to keep the United States out of the looming Second World War.

“We’ve had accusations of Russian interference in our election system, but very little has been written about foreign lobbying in Congress,” says Thurber.

The book’s other co-editors are David Dulio, chair of the Political Science Department at Oakland University, and Colton Campbell, professor and chair of the Department of Security Studies at the National War College.

“Foreign governments spend millions each year to influence opinions and policy on a range of issues, such as military and economic aid, bilateral relations, trade development, immigration, public relations, and tourism,” the authors write. “In the 114th Congress (2015–2017) alone, for instance, 73 House congressional caucuses — nearly one quarter — were country-specific.”

“Lobbying efforts may be narrowly focused, such as when the embassy of Ecuador hired a Washington-based lobbying firm for $300,000 to help counter growing congressional criticism against the South American country for refusing to rule out asylum for Edward Snowden, the computer programmer who copied and leaked classified information from the National Security Agency in 2013," said Thurber. "Or they may be part of a country’s broader attempt to gain long-term influence in Washington.”

Between 1966 and 2015, the Department of Justice brought only seven criminal cases under FARA – one resulted in a conviction at trial. But the high-profile conviction of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and the guilty plea by former White House Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Flynn are shining an intense spotlight on FARA and its importance to American democracy.

“The number and variety of foreign governments getting involved have increased dramatically in the last twenty years, and the enforcement of FARA has gone down dramatically at the same time,” Thurber says. “Scandal brings reform, and we’re going to see some reform in FARA as a result of Manafort, of Flynn, and of others who have not registered with FARA and who are attempting to influence the Congress.”

One simple fact would seem to underline the millions of dollars spent each year on Congressional lobbying by foreign governments and entities: history has demonstrated repeatedly that the tactic works. But this may be changing.

“That’s a simple correlation, but sometimes they waste their money,” Thurber says. Japan and Korea spend more than anyone else, then come the Saudis and the U.A.E. In some cases, they get what they want, and in some cases, they don’t. With this administration – with Trump – many of them are going to be disappointed.”