In 2005, Azerbaijan, an oil-rich country in the Caucuses that regained its independence when the Soviet Union collapsed, hired the Livingston Group, a well-connected Washington firm, to lobby on various issues ranging from human rights to trade and procuring funding. Over the last three years, representatives of the country have lobbied on the re-authorization of Export-Import Bank financing and security concerns in the region, meeting with several members of Congress along the way to push their agenda.
With influential lobbyists such as Bob Livingston heading their team, Azerbaijan’s government had access to some of the most powerful people in Washington. For instance, at a meeting with Vice President Richard Cheney, Livingston petitioned to add an attach from the Department of Commerce to the U.S. embassy in Azerbaijan. They have also enlisted Livingston’s aid in organizing the U.S.-Azerbaijan Chamber of Commerce, working with the United States on building an oil pipeline, and getting oil companies including BP to invest in the region.And they’ve paid well for the service: In the past two years alone the country has spent more than $680,000 in fees and expenses to the Livingston Group.
Getting to that data, however, is a time consuming, difficult process. The Foreign Agent Registration Information System, maintained by the Department of Justice, has an online database that provides users with access, through a balky search engine, to filings by foreign agents in a pdf format. Lobbyists for foreign entities”including foreign governments and government-controlled entities”must, under the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA), disclose their political activities, such as their meetings with U.S. government officials, the matters they discuss with them, and their campaign contributions to political candidates.
Sunlight decided to take a sampling of those filings“covering all the lobbying activity disclosed by foreign agents representing 15 countries”and put it online in a digital format. We’re presenting this slice of data in a searchable format, showing the activities of the lobbyists for 15 countries, their contacts with government officials and the $67 million in fees and expenses they’ve reported. The records collected and presented here show that some issues frequently appear, including trade, human rights and monetary aid; they also show that countries promote author events at the Library of Congress and raise the programming choices of the Public Broadcasting System with members of Congress.
Top foreign lobbying issues
The data gives a sense of how lobbying campaigns operate, and how members of Congress respond to them. Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., for example, introduced a resolution advocating a free trade agreement between the United States and Taiwan on Mar. 28, 2006, more than a month after his staffer met with lobbyists representing the country. Lobbyists for Taiwan then made contacts with at least 19 other members of Congress in 2006 to discuss the same resolution. In the past three years alone, Taiwan has hired 13 lobbyists and paid more than $7 million in fees and compensation to these firms.
Taiwan had access to some of the most powerful members of Congress including Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. In July 2006, Randy Scheunemann, then with Orion Strategies, met with the Arizona Senator to discuss Taiwan related issues. Scheunemann has since joined McCain’s presidential campaign as a foreign policy adviser. McCain’s presidential campaign has been plagued with reports of lobbyists working for foreign governments, including Tom Loeffler. Loeffler served as co-chairman of the McCain campaign while his firm represented the Saudi government; Loeffler had contacted McCain on behalf of his client a few months before joining the campaign. Although, Loeffler resigned from the campaign soon after these reports, Scheunemann continues as McCain’s foreign policy adviser. According to FARA reports, lobbyists for these 15 countries contributed $97,000 to McCain from the latter part of 2005 to the end of 2007.
The staff of Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., the Democratic nominee, has also had contacts with lobbyists who have registered under FARA. One of his staffers met with Lydia Borland of the Livingston Group to discuss the current status of U.S./Azerbaijan relations. There were four other contacts with another member of Obama’s staff to discuss the India”U.S. nuclear agreement. Lobbyists for these countries disclosed giving $11,000 to Obama’s campaign on their FARA supplemental forms.
While some countries push for a certain legislation to be sponsored or passed, others lobby to dissuade Congress to support a bill or sometimes alter it. For example, when Nancy Pelosi decided to seek a house vote to pass a resolution that would formally label the murder of hundreds of thousands of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century as genocide, Turkey spent almost $600,000 to flood Capitol Hill with lobbyists who sought to block the resolution.
While lobbying for federal funding is hardly new to Washington, even for foreign agents, in recent years, FARA filings have shown that some countries, especially Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, are directly referring to military funding in their lobbying disclosures.
Lobbyists for Pakistan pushed for various bills related to monetary aid to the country in a counter-terrorism bill. They hired Van Scoyoc to lobby on the Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act. This bill provides U.S. Agency for International Development support for Pakistan and also promises a long term strategic partnership between the two countries. The bill also authorizes appropriations for security assistance for Pakistan for FY2008 and extends presidential authority to waive foreign assistance restrictions regarding Pakistan for FY2007-FY2008.
While Sunlight’s FARA database provides better access to a slice of FARA data, it is incomplete, and the official Web site remains difficult to use.
In June, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., along with Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., introduced legislation that aimed at closing a few loopholes in the FARA. If it passes, it would require lobbyists for any foreign entity to register with FARA even if they are registered under the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 (lobbyists for most foreign corporations can file under the LDA, avoiding the more detailed reporting requirements of FARA). The Closing the Foreign Lobbying Loophole Act, as it is titled, will also mandate disclosing all lobbying activities that occur outside the United States.
Yet the act does not require foreign agents to file electronically, or require the Justice Dept. to improve its public disclosure of these detailed records of outside influence on Washington.