In the wake of the Citizens United case, and the legitimate concern that the door might be open for foreign influence on the U.S. political process, improving the online data released from the disclosures that the Foreign Agent Registration Act—passed in 1938—requires. While the Foreign Agent Registration Unit is to be commended for getting some of this information online (here: http://www.justice.gov/criminal/fara/), the most valuable information—the issues on which lobbyists are engaged, the members with whom they’re meeting, the amounts of money they’re being paid, the campaign contributions they’re making—are buried in unsearchable PDF documents.
The Justice Dept. could improve online FARA disclosure in a number of ways:
1). Allow for voluntary electronic filing, and make those filings completely available in a searchable, sortable downloadable format.
2). Better present the information that’s already been digitized. The current FARA search engine allows one to lookup registrants (the lobbying firms), the foreign principals (the clients) and short form registrants (the individual lobbyists) but none of these searches tells the user which foreign principals an individual lobbyist represents, what firm the lobbyist works for, which clients a firm represents, and so on. Cross-referencing this information would present users with more meaningful search results.
3). Digitize more information. The current online FARA disclosures are pointers to information (which is contained in those unsearchable PDFs). Justice already manually types in some information—the name and ID number of registrants, the names of clients, the names of lobbyists. Why not include a few additional fields: the amount of money each client paid, a yes or no option to show whether the registrant engaged in political activity on a client’s behalf or disseminated communications to the general public to advance a client’s interest, and so on (all this information is contained within the forms).
4). Revisit the reporting requirements of supplemental statements. These forms could be greatly improved for the digital age. Currently, there is no standard format in which registrants report their political activities or the campaign contributions of their PACs and employees, to site two areas that could be improved.
5). Explore requiring electronic filing for all FARA registrants, and making this information available for searching, sorting and downloading. Since 2008, Congress has required registrants under the Lobbying Disclosure Act to file all information electronically, greatly facilitating the analysis of this data. This might require legislative action by Congress.
6). This last one is a bit far afield from where we started, but is also crucial: Work with Congress to reverse the provisions of the Lobbyist Disclosure Act of 1995 that allows lobbyists for foreign-owned corporations to file under the LDA (providing far less information on their activities) instead of the Foreign Agent Registration Act to require filing under both acts. If a legislative fix is necessary, require, at the very least, quarterly reporting rather than semi-annual reporting.