By Anna Massoglia and Geoff West
Foreign lobbyists and agents acting on behalf of foreign interests have reported hundreds of millions of dollars in payments since January 2017, an analysis of OpenSecrets’ exclusive new Foreign Lobby Watch data reveals.
Today we’re making available, for the first time, a searchable database of foreign interests spending on lobbying and influence in the United States.
Foreign lobbyists and other operatives acting on behalf of foreign interests wield a significant amount of power, impacting economic and diplomatic policies as well as public opinion.
The law that governs most foreign influence disclosure requirements, the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA), requires any foreign agent or lobbyist representing a foreign principal to register with the U.S. Department of Justice and file detailed public disclosures.
These reports may include details that are not found in the more familiar lobbying reports submitted to Congress under the Lobbying Disclosure Act, including names of U.S. officials with whom the lobbyist had contact and copies of materials disseminated, such as ads, press releases, or flyers.
While FARA reports are publicly available through the Justice Department, following the money can be difficult, requiring laborious research and records sleuthing. With Foreign Lobby Watch, anyone can quickly learn what foreign interests are spending on lobbying or to influence policy in the United States and how much they are spending.
Since the Center for Responsive Politics inherited this project from the Sunlight Foundation, we’ve added a number of features to make the records easier to access. In addition to a full-text search feature, Foreign Lobby Watch data is now searchable by lobbyist or political operative name, registrant, country, and foreign principal. For example, you can find every mention of “tariff” in all of the FARA filings or choose to filter result by firm, lobbyist, country, date, or any combination of the filters.
Here’s what we found: At least $534.7 million has been spent by foreign governments, political parties and other foreign interests to influence U.S. policy or public opinion.
An examination of the records since 2017 shows more than 300 lobbying firms and other registrantsrepresenting more than 350 foreign clients, including governments, political parties, nonprofits, businesses, and individuals.
Since 2017, no country has spent more money on U.S. influence efforts than South Korea. Governmental and non-governmental entities have spent about $70.5 million in the U.S. Japan ranks second with $51.4 million.
The majority of the spending came from a single organization: the Korea Trade Promotion Center(KTPC), a state-funded nonprofit promoting foreign investment and partnerships, which accounts for $45.9 million of the spending. KTPC also ranks first among registrants.
About $3 out of every $10 spent on foreign lobbying in the U.S. since last year originated from East Asian countries, specifically South Korea, Japan, China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. The five countries have spent a combined $158.2 million since January 2017 — or nearly half of the $374.5 million spent on behalf of the remaining 128 countries in our data.
The South Korean government has spent $54.2 million since last year on U.S. lobbying, ranking first among foreign principals.
Overall, 10 of the top 20 foreign principals are governments, including Japan and China. But four of the top-spending governments are from the Middle East.
Facing a diplomatic crisis with neighboring countries, Qatar turned to Washington for help. Since 2017, the Qatari government has spent $15.7 million on U.S. influence campaigns.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which is feuding with Qatar, spent a combined $26.1 million and rank tenth and eleventh overall among top-spending foreign principals. UAE’s capital city of Abu Dhabi added $14.8 million in spending.
Foreign agents spend a lot to attract U.S. currency, whether through foreign investment and trade partnerships or travel and tourism.
Seven of the top 20 registrants are trade or tourism-related organizations. No country has spent more to attract tourism than Ireland with $23.3 million in reported spending since 2017. The Cayman Islands, a Caribbean resort and notorious tax haven for the uber-rich, ranks second with about $18.6 million.
Much of the spending on behalf of South Korea, Japan and Hong Kong is focused on U.S. trade relations. Since 2017, $69.6 million of the $534.4 million — or 13 percent — of total spending in foreign lobbying spending was about improving trade in these three countries.
U.S. companies and trade groups hire lobbying firms to advocate their interests in Washington, and so do foreign governments.
Since 2017, 69 U.S. firms that also file reports under the Lobbying Disclosure Act have earned $72.9 million through its contracts with foreign entities. Nearly a quarter of the money has gone to Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, a top Washington, D.C., firm, which has earned $16.5 million representing non-U.S. organizations and governments.
Podesta Group and Sonoran Policy Group have each earned over $7 million, ranking second and third, respectively.
Notably absent from 2018 foreign lobbying spending, Podesta Group ranks second among FARA registrants based on $7 million in receipts from 2017 alone. Podesta Group’s sole 2018 filing was the lobbying powerhouse’s termination of work for foreign clients after the firm dissolved following scrutiny over foreign lobbying activities with ties with President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his business associate, Rick Gates.
About Foreign Lobby Watch
Foreign Lobby Watch is a searchable database of FARA filings dating back to the 1940s with newly released data from 2017 and 2018 containing details on firms providing services on behalf of foreign interests, lobbyists and political operatives acting as foreign agents, and foreign spending to influence policy in the United States. We’re looking forward to expanding Foreign Lobby Watch with FARA data from previous years and other features to dig deeper into foreign influence as time and resources allow.