WASHINGTON -- A bill by Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley, in response to indictments in the special counsel's Russia probe, would have far-reaching consequences for U.S. representatives of foreign governments, foreign companies and other international interests.
The Iowa Republican introduced the measure last week after indictments in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 elections and possible coordination by the Trump campaign. Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., introduced an identical bill in his chamber after former lobbyists and Trump campaign officials Paul Manafort and Rick Gates were indicted on a number of charges including violations of a 1938 law known as the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
Though K Street has been absorbed with the unfolding drama of the Mueller investigation, which has roped in the Podesta Group and Mercury LLC, lobbyists have paid less attention to the potentially major changes contained in the Grassley and Johnson measures.
The bill would require anyone representing foreign corporations -- not just foreign governments and political parties -- in the United States to register under FARA. This change would affect lobbyists as well as lawyers and public relations advisers.
"This is a big deal," said Joshua Rosenstein, an expert on lobbying laws with the law firm Sandler Reiff Lamb Rosenstein & Birkenstock.
U.S. lobbyists for foreign-based companies such as Honda have filed under a simpler system as part of a 1995 law on lobbying disclosures but the Grassley and Johnson bill would require filing under FARA, which makes public much more information including the contacts that lobbyists, lawyers and public relations advisers make with congressional officials.
The Grassley and Johnson measures also would require more frequent disclosures to the Justice Department, putting it on the same quarterly schedule as the system for lobbying disclosure reports filed with Congress.
The bill also would give the FARA unit at the Justice Department more subpoena-like investigative authority, something the unit has asked of Congress for decades.
"Unfortunately, we've seen time and again how lobbyists of foreign principals skirt existing disclosure laws to conceal their clients' identities and agendas," Grassley said in a statement. "This bill seeks to correct those flaws by improving enforcement, compliance and oversight of FARA."
Legal experts on the foreign lobbying law, such as Rosenstein and William Minor of DLA Piper, said some parts of the Grassley bill may be an overreaction to the Manafort and Gates indictments.