How Foreign Powers Nudge US Policy
While Senate looks for illegal acts, some 595 lobbyists legally influence Washington
WASHINGTON — You can count on it. Every day, somewhere in the world, officials of some foreign government are itching to influence the way the US makes decisions - and are willing to pay American citizens to help them get what they want.
There's nothing illegal about the practice. It's called "lobbying."
From Angola to Norway and from Nicaragua to Japan, governments hire American firms to help them have their views heard in Washington. Their concerns range from sugar quotas and oil-pollution legislation to NAFTA and NATO.
While Senate hearings continue this week into whether China tried to influence last year's elections with illegal campaign contributions, 163 foreign governments (including China) have taken the legal route of hiring lobbyists to help them win over lawmakers, according to the latest Department of Justice statistics.
Lobbying services range from the practical (pronouncing names of officials) to arranging for the dramatic (TV testimony about alleged Iraqi baby killers).
These lobbyists - some 595 at last count - are technically known as "foreign agents," under the law that requires them to register with the Justice Department. But their work has little to do with the cloak-and-dagger activity such a name suggests, and far more to do with the hard, cold reality of trying to do business in a world increasingly interconnected by economic and other issues.
"If you want to be a player on the world stage today, especially in terms of anything that has to do with the economy, you have to deal with the US government and the US economy," says David King, an associate professor at Harvard University.
"The critical distinction, in terms of what China may have done, is that it's perfectly legal, acceptable, and normal for foreign governments to try to influence US policy," says Mr. King, who teaches a course about lobbying. "What's unacceptable is trying to influence US elections."
In addition to concerns raised by the Senate hearings, the Federal Election Commission last week fined a German businessman $323,000 - the largest fine ever levied - for making contributions to local, state, and federal Republican political committees. It is illegal for foreigners to make US campaign contributions.
Many, if not most, governments use their own resources in meeting with US officials, setting up meetings through embassies and other formal channels. They often also supplement their work with services offered by lobbyists - everything from analyzing the impact of pending US legislation to waging public-relations campaigns and arranging meetings with decisionmakers at the White House and on Capitol Hill.
(And then there are the small but important tips, like the one made by a lobbyist who suggested to the foreign minister of Romania that it would help his country's pitch for NATO membership if he correctly pronounced the organization's name as "NAY-toe" instead of "NAH-toe.")
"Ultimately, the biggest service we offer is providing advice on how best to present their case to the West, particularly the US," says Charles Waterman of Jefferson-Waterman International, a firm here that has represented several countries, including Nicaragua, Croatia, Bahrain, and Jamaica.
"There's a fair amount of telling them from a confidant's point of view, and that's what we become, confidants, what will wash well and what will not wash well," he says.
But not everyone sees the work of "foreign agents" in such benign terms.
Critics argue that just as with lobbying by domestic interest groups, too much business gets discussed behind closed doors. And they complain that although lobbyists are required to report to the Justice Department the general nature of their business and the money they receive, they do not have to supply specifics to anyone. Also, registration is required only if a lobbyist is seeking to directly influence legislation. Work that involves gathering information or meeting with American officials to understand the US point of view can be done without being registered.
"If one were to look at the expressed mission of foreign agents, it's to bend, shape, or otherwise manipulate the making of US government policy," says Bill Hogan, director of investigative projects at the Center for Public Integrity here. "They are part of a huge influence industry in Washington. Some of it is visible and some is invisible."
Although lobbyists argue that it's in their best interests to be truthful with elected officials if they want to continue having access to them, many in the industry still shudder over an incident related to the Gulf War.
In an effort to mobilize US support for military action against Iraq in 1990, the Kuwaiti government paid more than $10 million to Hill and Knowlton, a major public-relations firm.
The campaign organized by the firm included riveting testimony on Capitol Hill by a teenage Kuwaiti girl who said she had seen Kuwaiti babies taken out of hospital incubators by Iraqi soldiers and left to die. But senators were later angered to learn that the information was never fully corroborated, and that the girl who testified was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the US. Hill and Knowlton executives said they had no reason to doubt the veracity of the testimony.
That incident aside, lobbyists argue that it is in the best interest of foreign governments to present a "win-win" proposition to US officials, investing in new manufacturing jobs in the US, for example, in exchange for less restrictive trade policies.
"Members of Congress are ultimately going to be driven by what's going to help their constituents," agrees King. "The way for other countries to be successful is to appeal to the interests of American voters."