States step in as Congress fails to fight foreign influence

The Hill

Since the Russian government’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, concerns about foreign interference in U.S. politics have only grown. These concerns haven’t been unfounded, as Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines labelled such malign influence “an enduring challenge facing our country” in a report issued last month on foreign threats to America’s democratic process. 

These revelations have turned congressional attention to the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), the country’s leading legal tool to track foreign lobbying and influence. But despite bipartisan interest and a clear need for reforms, Congress hasn’t passed a substantive update to the law in decades.

Instead, state legislatures have stepped into this void with their own plans. Just this year, lawmakers in 10 states have introduced legislation to restrict foreign influence, following six states that passed similar laws since 2017. While most of these bills have received little attention, some are advancing quickly despite constitutional and practical concerns.

Take, for example, Florida’s efforts to restrict foreign influence in universities and research institutes. A pair of measures – H.B. 7017 and S.B. 2010 – have been steadily progressing, approved unanimously and backed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, although decried by the state’s higher education faculty union. The measures, which emerged from the work of a committee that investigated allegations of improper ties with China at a leading cancer center, would mandate screening and disclosure of foreign gifts and contracts with “foreign countries of concern.” 

And it’s not just China’s influence that is worrying state legislators. Lawmakers in Maine have turned their attention to their northern neighbor, Canada, amid concerns that a Quebec-controlled utility company is bankrolling a campaign to block a referendum on the fate of a power line critical to the company’s profits. This slate of measures – which would ban foreign spending on ballot initiatives – has split advocacy organizations on unorthodox lines. Groups such as Maine Citizens for Clean Elections and NO to New England Clean Energy Connect lined up insupport of the proposals, while Mainers for Clean Energy Jobs and the Maine Chamber of Commerce voiced opposition.

Out west, Colorado and Idaho have advanced similar legislation. Idaho’s H.B. 245, which codifies the existing federal ban on foreign nationals contributing to electioneering, sailed through the state house and senate and was signed into law on April 13. Colorado’s S.B. 177 goes even further, prohibiting “foreign-influenced corporations” from making election-related contributions; the bill passed committee but appears unlikely to be adopted. 

But efforts in other states have largely failed to gain traction. Bills aimed at foreign-influenced corporations in states like New York, Oregon and Minnesota have languished in committee, as has a Missouri proposal that would ban Chinese funding to universities. Most states have not even given this issue real consideration, creating an easily exploitable patchwork of laws. 

More significantly, these efforts have exposed the inherent shortcomings of a state-led approach to combating foreign influence. State governments have little expertise or resources to devote to monitoring, let alone stopping malign foreign influence. These laws also raise serious constitutional questions: Maine’s attorney general, for example, stated that it would be “difficult to predict the result of a legal challenge” to lawmakers’ proposals.

Moreover, these approaches have often been narrowly targeted with certain countries and incidents in mind, missing the broader scope of foreign lobbying. Banning foreign-influenced companies from electioneering, for example, doesn’t eliminate overseas influence, as many of these countries already typically rely on American firms to do their lobbying. 

So, what’s the answer? For starters, Congress needs to step up. U.S. lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have introduced multiple promising, if uncoordinated, reforms to FARA in recent years. The Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative (where I work) catalogued 44 of these bills since 2016, showing how policymakers can cooperate by modernizing the act’s filing and disclosure requirements and reexamining the law’s various loopholes and exemptions. 

And Congress, in turn, should partner with state legislators to combat malign foreign influence. Bills like Iowa’s S.F. 2323, which was enacted in 2018 and explicitly prevents state officials from engaging in activities that require registration under FARA, show that state governments can complement federal action in meaningful ways.

Ultimately, however, the real onus must be on Capitol Hill. A state-by-state, “whack-a-mole” approach leaves too many loopholes for malign actors to jump through. Instead, federal lawmakers need to take charge, turning state lawmakers’ good intentions into momentum for a bipartisan push to modernize FARA and combat harmful foreign influence.

Brian Steiner is a researcher with the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative (FITI) at the Center for International Policy.

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  • Sandra Howard
    published this page in News 2021-05-04 08:16:29 -0400