Congress Can Stop Foreign Secret Spending on US Elections Right Now

Following the release of a Senate Judiciary Committee report suggesting “the Kremlin used the National Rifle Association [NRA] as a means of accessing and assisting Mr. Trump and his campaign,” Americans are right to wonder how much longer Congress is going to look the other way while foreign actors secretly influence US elections.

In the years since the US Supreme Court’s overreaching Citizens United v. FEC decision, Congress has watched political groups that do not disclose their funding sources spend hundreds of millions to elect and defeat political candidates. But rather than ensure that none of those millions came from the bank accounts of foreign individuals, corporations or governments, Congress has failed to pass basic disclosure laws that would both deter and ferret out illegal foreign spending. Federal agencies also have fallen down on the job by failing to require disclosure: the US Securities and Exchange Commission on corporate political spending, the Internal Revenue Service on nonprofit spending and the Federal Election Commission (FEC) on entities across the board.

The law banning foreign nationals from spending money in US political campaigns is solid and unambiguous. It is illegal for foreign actors to directly or indirectly spend money or provide things of value in connection with US elections.

Enforcing the ban, on the other hand, is riddled with easily exploited loopholes — a fact perfectly demonstrated by Russians allegedly funneling money through the NRA to promote Trump’s candidacy and evading detection until after the election. A simple rule requiring the disclosure of major donors quickly would patch this obvious hole, but Republicans in Congress repeatedly have blocked such an easy fix. The DISCLOSE Act, newly reintroduced in the Senate this month, is a chance for them to correct this error, as well as fix the limitations on disclosure rules that have snuck into the appropriations packages over the last few years.

When it comes to donations directly given to candidates, rather than outside groups, enforcing the ban on foreign spending is quite easy. Donors are required to disclose their name, address, employer and occupation. The media, public and the FEC then can scrutinize those donations and identify potentially illegal donations.

The same cannot be said about donations to the NRA and other politically active nonprofits that, under current law, aren’t required to disclose their donors even if they spend millions of dollars to support and oppose political candidates. Those donations are hidden completely from public view and are an obvious route for bad actors looking to evade the foreign spending ban.

Would the NRA and the Kremlin have attempted a brazen ploy to help elect Donald Trump with foreign money if the NRA had been required to file regular disclosures of its donors, as candidates and other political committees are required to do? It seems unlikely.

Even if the FBI concludes that the NRA was not, in fact, complicit in Russians illegally spending money to influence a US election, the door remains wide open for foreign actors to do so in a future election. Until Congress closes and locks that door, lawmakers’ inaction will continue to threaten our national security and sovereignty. Americans, and Americans alone, should be in charge of deciding US elections.

Under the DISCLOSE Act, any organization that spends more than $10,000 on elections would be required to promptly report their activity as well as their major financial backers. The legislation also would prohibit shell companies from hiding a donor’s identity and bar domestic corporations with significant foreign ownership from making election expenditures. This bill will give us the information we need to hold those who play in politics accountable, though it doesn’t yet change the system itself. For that next step we must move additional reforms to shift who is spending, like small donor focused public financing and overturning Citizens United.

Republicans in Congress have been unmoved by US billionaires and wealthy corporations secretly influencing US elections. Let’s hope the public’s repeated concerns about nonprofits serving as hidden conduits for a foreign government to interfere in our elections finally push lawmakers to support commonsense disclosure rules to put public eyes on this secret election money.

The foreign spending ban is on the books for a reason. We should make sure we have an easy and effective mechanism for fully enforcing it.