Diplomacy for Sale: Internationally Financed Lobbying in American Politics
In December 2016, President-elect Donald Trump called President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan. Their conversation was historic: for the first time since 1979, the leaders of the United States and Taiwan spoke directly. To some, Trump’s call with Ing-wen suggested his possible recognition of Taiwanese sovereignty – and a break with decades of U.S. foreign policy.
A Wall Street Journal report identified an unexpected figure behind the call: former Republican presidential nominee and Senator Bob Dole (R-KS), who reportedly urged Trump’s team to contact the Taiwanese leader. Dole now works as special counsel to the Washington firm that represents the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office, Taiwan’s unofficial embassy in the United States.
Trump’s call raises the question of how internationally financed lobbying will influence the new administration. Some worry that the president—accustomed to business dealings and inexperienced in foreign policy—may be too easily swayed by foreign leaders and their interests.
Taiwan is one of several small countries behind the bulk of internationally financed lobbying. Thomas Graham, a Senior Fellow at Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and Managing Director at Kissinger Associates, a consulting firm, explained this practice to The Politic.
“Many times you find smaller countries will hire lobbyists to get more access than simple representation. An individual has a reputation with a specific set of individuals,” he said.
Small countries, Graham contends, often seek this access.
“In the State Department or elsewhere, people are busy. They are not necessarily going to deal with smaller countries. A lobbyist might have access to a level in the executive [office] where the information might make a difference,” he continued.
The call with Trump is a high-profile example of this international lobbying. It immediately provoked concerns about how the Trump administration sets foreign policy. These concerns were exacerbated by reports that Trump did not contact the State Department before the phone call. Former Secretary of State John Kerry told the Saban Forum in Washington that Trump did not request talking points or recommendations.
Despite the call, Trump’s position on Taiwan remains unclear. During a call with Chinese Premier Xi Jinping on February 8, Trump reaffirmed his commitment to the One China Policy. But this concession did little to assuage concerns about his foreign policy. To some, the Taiwan call was less a shift in policy than an amateur blunder.
Yet the potential for influence is not as clear as the Taiwan call might suggest. Some are skeptical of how much of a role Dole played in the meeting.
“He could have just recommended it. He could have helped set it up. But at the end of the day it is the White House who makes the decision to have the phone call,” Graham said. In other words, the administration did not necessarily call Taiwan because of Dole’s influence; he may have played a smaller role in the affair than reported.
This ambiguity makes it difficult to understand the precise role that lobbyists play. In matters both domestic and international, lobbyists represent any number of interests before government officials. While lobbyists must file reports on their actions, there are limits to what the public knows.
Despite its negative connotations, lobbying can also be an important tool for advocating policy changes, said Lara Chausow GRD ’15, a political scientist who wrote her dissertation on political access in lobbying.
“Without lobbying, what we care about may not get on the agenda as easily,” she said in an interview with The Politic. “If lawmakers aren’t lobbied, are certain issues like LGBTQ rights really going to come up in their minds?”
Lobbyists do not only get issues on politicians’ radars; they also help interest groups refine their messages.
“Access is a huge part of lobbying, but if you also have federal government experience and you leave, you have a lot more knowledge than someone who never had that experience,” Chausow continued. “You can do a lot more in terms of strategy and access that people would otherwise never accomplish.”
Graham defended the benefits of lobbying, even in an international context.
“Depending on the state lobbying and particular attitudes, American lobbyists might be given a hearing that foreign diplomats may not [get],” he said. “They have an understanding of what American national interests are, so foreign governments can receive more credibility.”
But Virginia Canter, Executive Branch Ethics Counselor for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), warns of some potential dangers.
“Individuals are appointed or elected to represent the public’s interest. The question is whether the special interests are crowding out the voice of the public,” she said in an interview with The Politic. “Education about particular issues is not a bad thing. But we need to know. Is it just because people are making donations, making contributions, that they get a foot in the door?”
Legislators have many strategies to make lobbyists more transparent and accountable.
According to Chausow, limiting money spent on lobbying would resolve some concerns about potential corruption. “But these limits just aren’t going to be constitutional. What is one of the biggest issues is the fact that lobbying helps set the agenda for what gets dealt with,” she said.
With more transparency, Chausow believes the public will be better able to determine what interests are determining the agenda. “If you don’t have money to hire a lobbyist, then you have a hard time influencing the agenda,” she said. “Then you don’t give interested groups other, non-lobbying ways to get into the agenda. Transparency makes it possible to really grapple with this.”
Current legislation requires federal lobbyists to register with the Clerk of the House of Representatives and the Secretary of the Senate. But this registration is only required if they spend more than 20 percent of their time lobbying—and only meetings with officials count towards that time. Consulting on government issues, providing lobbying strategy, or even arranging meetings does not count. This means that many lobbyists are not formally registered.
International lobbyists receive more scrutiny than domestic lobbyists. Since 1938, lobbyists for foreign governments have had to register with the federal government under the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA). Originally created to preempt the spread of Nazi propaganda during the Second World War, FARA now applies to several foreign entities.
After legislation, the most important restrictions on lobbying come from executive ethics rules. These rules vary from administration to administration, and their exact effects are often difficult to determine.
The Obama administration had no major lobbying scandals. While some credit Obama’s ethics rules for this record, others point to the conviction of twenty-one lobbyists in 2006 and the public scrutiny of lobbyists that followed.
In either case, the Trump administration has made notable changes to Obama’s rules. Under the Obama administration, individuals could be granted permission to act outside of the rules put forth in the ethics commitment. This same policy holds for the Trump administration, but unlike under Obama, these waivers are not disclosed to the public.
Canter, who was also White House Ethics Counsel under Obama, described the stark contrast between these two policies.
“Under the Obama pledge, these waivers were huge. They were only given when they were determined to be in the public interest,” she told The Politic. “Under the new pledge, they’ve taken that standard out. These are completely discretionary, which is troubling. They’ve taken away much of the transparency that the public needs to hold officials accountable.”
The Trump team also scrapped a requirement barring administration members from contacting their former departments for two years after leaving the White House. Instead, administration officials are now bound by current legislation, which restricts contact for only one year.
“This is important because law firms will carry someone for one year,” Canter explained, “but not for two years.” The omission of this provision from the Trump pledge has caused fears that the revolving door between public and private work will only move faster.
Even so, President Trump has enacted new rules. For example, he introduced a five-year ban on all lobbying by former administration members as well as a permanent ban on any activity that requires administration officials to register under FARA. On the surface, this would appear to significantly curtail the influence of foreign governments.
But Canter believes there are lingering questions about the ban’s efficacy.
“The weakness with this provision is that it is possible to register under the Lobbying Disclosure Act and then represent foreign entities under that vehicle. The other concern about this provision is that it doesn’t really get at some of the largest concerns in terms of using public office for private gains,” she explained.
Trump’s administration has a notably high number of individuals who worked in the private sector — especially in industries they are now tasked with regulating. Rex Tillerson, for example, will make decisions as Secretary of State that impact the energy industry. Some view this as a cause for concern about his and others’ ability to avoid conflicts of interest.
But according to Graham, there is little reason to consider past positions for future policy decisions.
“If the Russians have a more favorable view of Rex Tillerson because of his work with ExxonMobil, that may not mean that they gain any kind of benefit. It could, in fact, work to the advantage of the U.S. It is unclear why lobbying against sanctions should necessarily prejudice our views of him as Secretary of State,” he said.
Canter remains skeptical of the public’s ability to hold Trump officials accountable for their foreign dealings.
“People like Rex Tillerson and Gary Cohn are not going to make money lobbying foreign governments,” she said. “They are going to make their money by using the relationships they will develop as government officials to make new deals for their old employers.”
One of the most obvious ties to the private sector comes from the president himself. Trump resigned from the boards of several hundred companies shortly after his inauguration. But the Trump Organization is still owned by the president and managed by his two sons.
Canter’s organization, CREW, is currently suing Trump because they contend that his ownership of the Trump Organization violates the Emoluments Clause, which states the president cannot receive gifts from a foreign government or entity. CREW contends this clause is violated when foreign government officials stay in Trump hotels and patronize the president’s businesses.
While the lawsuit may not succeed, many remain wary of the potential for foreign influence through the Trump Organization.
Graham shares these concerns.
“It is clear there are conflicts of interest. The president hasn’t separated himself from the business. He still owns it and knows where many of his assets are. Those conflicts of interest create avenues that go outside of the normal lobbying and diplomatic channels.”
As the Trump administration deals with potential conflicts of interest at the highest levels, it is clear that foreign lobbying is here to stay. With new rules taking force, however, it remains to be seen what impact international lobbyists will have. As President Trump makes foreign policy decisions, the question will continue to be: who is guiding his hand?