Sen. Bob Menendez, charged last week with secretly aiding the Egyptian government in exchange for bribes, single-handedly blocked passage of bipartisan legislation in 2020 that would have strengthened the law regulating foreign influence and lobbying in Washington, Senate records show.
The proposed Foreign Agents Disclosure and Registration Enhancement Act grew out of widespread concerns that the current law regulating foreign lobbying had seldom been enforced and that foreign influence campaigns had infiltrated American politics. Strengthening the law had drawn support from Democrats and Republicans on key committees.
In December 2020, after a Republican senator asked for unanimous consent to bring the bill to the Senate floor for a vote, Menendez, D-N.J., stood and objected. He argued that while enforcement of foreign lobbying rules needed to be strengthened, more thought needed to be put into exactly how to do it.
“It seems shortsighted to provide additional enforcement tools before we have figured out what that regime should look like,” Menendez said on the Senate floor. “The disturbing rise of foreign influence campaigns that use a variety of measures to mask who is the ultimate source or beneficiary should serve as an alarm bell for all of us."
He added, "So, before this body passes any tweaks or new tools and adds to the current patchwork of FARA regulations and exemptions, I think we should take a step back and take a comprehensive look, and we have not done that.”
Two congressional aides said it was clear that Menendez was objecting for himself, not for another senator. They also said the bill had significant support from key Democrats, including Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, then the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.
After this article was published, a spokesperson told NBC News that Menendez objected to the bill on the recommendation of staff members, in part because it had not been through a review by the Foreign Relations Committee.
A partially redacted email obtained by NBC News supports that account but also expresses concern that “the R’s will seek to weaponize” the bill against President Joe Biden — presumably a reference to his son Hunter Biden’s foreign business dealings, which Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, had investigated. The email did not explain why other Senate Democrats who supported the bill apparently did not share that concern.
Three years later, the act has not been updated. At the time Menendez blocked it, senators said it was a huge missed opportunity.
Grassley, who had asked for the unanimous consent, noted that the bill had drawn support from a bipartisan group of senators, and he appeared surprised that Menendez had objected.
“It took a lot of work to put together the bill that I asked unanimous consent on,” Grassley said then. “To work out the differences with several different approaches, and I thought that we had taken everything into consideration, particularly bringing together people from the Intelligence Committee and the Judiciary Committee.”
The existing Foreign Agents Registration Act, which was enacted in 1938 and last updated in 1966, requires agents of foreign entities to register with the Justice Department and file detailed public disclosures detailing their lobbying and influence campaigns. Failure to register is a crime, but prosecutions have been rare.
According to a detailed analysis of the text by a law firm, the bill Menendez blocked would have:
- Increased the criminal penalties for willful violations and material misstatements to $200,000 from $10,000.
- Created a new criminal offense for meeting with a member of Congress or staff members without disclosing that a person is a registered foreign agent.
- Required the Justice Department to develop a comprehensive strategy to enforce FARA, including examining all of its registration exemptions. The bill also would have required various reviews by the department’s inspector general, reports by the attorney general and audits by the Government Accountability Office.
- Give the attorney general the authority to issue civil investigative demands to require the production of documents.
NBC News reported Tuesday that in addition to the criminal allegations, the FBI is conducting a counterintelligence investigation into whether Egyptian intelligence agencies were involved in efforts to influence Menendez, who chaired the Foreign Relations Committee, which supervised billions of dollars in U.S. aid to Egypt. Investigators want to know whether Egyptian intelligence officials or their associates tried to gain access to Menendez through his wife, Nadine, sources familiar with the matter said.
Menendez and his wife pleaded not guilty in federal court in New York City on Wednesday to a three-count indictment alleging they were part of a bribery scheme. Among the allegations were that the senator accepted bribes from an Egyptian American businessman with ties to the Egyptian government. The indictment says Menendez passed on sensitive U.S. government information to Egyptian officials.