WASHINGTON – Bipartisan bills aimed at protecting U.S. elections from foreign meddling face unexpected opposition, prompting members of the Senate Judiciary Committee to appeal to Trump administration officials for help Tuesday.
Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, complained that some American businesses oppose his bill, which would strengthen enforcement of a law requiring lobbyists for foreign governments to register with the Department of Justice.
Grassley's bill, the Disclosing Foreign Influence Act, would require Justice to develop a comprehensive strategy to improve enforcement of the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Companies don't want to have to register as foreign agents and oppose a provision that would require international businesses with U.S. subsidiaries to register.
"We're running into opposition from some business groups that I don't think have a legitimate reason to oppose it," Grassley told Adam Hickey, a deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department's national security division, during a committee hearing Tuesday. "I wish you'd look at it and consider supporting it."
The Foreign Agents Registration Act — passed by Congress in 1938 to expose Nazi agents before World War II — has received increased attention in the past year.
Special counsel Robert Mueller charged two former Trump campaign officials with violating the law as part of his investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort was charged with — among other things — failing to properly disclose his work for the Kremlin-backed government in Ukraine. Richard Gates, who served as the campaign's deputy chairman, was initially charged with violating the same law, but that charge was dropped when Gates pleaded guilty to two separate crimes.
Despite Mueller's actions, the law has rarely been used to prosecute lobbyists, and Grassley and others pushed to step up its enforcement.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, introduced a separate bill with Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who serves on the panel. That bill would require the attorney general to create a section within the Justice Department to enforce laws against suspected operatives or agents of foreign governments.
The House Judiciary Committee approved a bill by Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., in January that is identical to Grassley's, but the senator's bill stalled in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The Feinstein-Cornyn bill — the Foreign Agents Registration Amendments Act — also awaits action there.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said her separate, bipartisan bill aimed at protecting state election systems from cyberattacks by the Russians or other foreign governments is blocked by Senate Republicans despite the fact that it is co-sponsored by Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla.
The Secure Elections Act would streamline cybersecurity information sharing between federal intelligence agencies and state election officials and provide security clearances to state officials, so they could get classified information about cyberthreats.
The senators are trying to attach the bill to a sweeping defense authorization bill the Senate is likely to pass this week, but Klobuchar said their amendment faces opposition from GOP leaders.
"For reasons I do not understand, our bill ... is being hung up," Klobuchar said Tuesday.
Russian hackers tried to breach the election systems of 21 states during the 2016 election, according to the Department of Homeland Security. The Russians succeeded in penetrating Illinois' voter registration database. There is no evidence that any votes were changed.
Hickey said he could not endorse any specific bills but promised to work with senators on their legislation. He said he expects the Justice Department to issue a public report this summer on interference in the 2016 election and ways to prevent meddling.