Congress is trying to pull back the curtain on foreign influence in the nation's capital by forcing think tanks to disclose any funding they receive from foreign nations.
Rep. Jack Bergman (R., Mich.) and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) are spearheading the Think Tank Transparency Act of 2022, which would force nonprofit groups that seek to influence public policy and Congress to publicly report all foreign funding, as well as any contracts or agreements they strike with foreign principals.
The bill comes just months after the Brookings Institution, one of Washington, D.C.'s oldest and most influential think tanks, found itself embroiled in an FBI probe into whether its former president, John Allen, lobbied for Qatar, the oil-rich nation that is known as a hub for terrorism financing. Brookings took more than $30 million in donations from Qatar over a 14-year period and even established a satellite campus in Doha. The arrangement between Qatar and Brookings is not unique—think tanks on both sides of the political spectrum routinely accept foreign cash from countries like China, Russia, and other regimes hoping to influence American policy makers.
"Think tanks have an enormous influence on U.S. public policy, and many receive millions from foreign entities who have a significant interest in how our policy is shaped," Bergman said in a statement. "Congress and the American people deserve to know what these think tanks are up to, and who they’re working for."
"The assumption that they are non-political, academic entities advocating for policies in our national interest is not always accurate, given the increasing amount of funding they receive from foreign governments, often earmarked for specific projects," Bergman said.
The legislation, which is likely to garner bipartisan support in light of growing concerns about foreign funding of American policy shops, would force think tanks to publicly disclose all foreign principals who subsidize their work. Within 90 days of inking any contract, think tanks would have to disclose this funding to the federal government, which would make the filings publicly available online.
The legislation is meant to address loopholes in the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, which requires those lobbying Congress to disclose any foreign nations paying for their work. Think tanks, however, have generally skirted this regulation, according to Bergman.
"The unfortunate reality is that FARA is unlikely to ever be used as a tool to promote transparency regarding the foreign funding of public policy non-profits," Bergman said in an explanatory post on his website. "This new legislation is designed as a practical, common-sense approach to facilitate full transparency regarding the foreign funding of and foreign agreements with think tanks."
The FBI probe into the Brookings Institution generated congressional interest in tightening disclosure regulations.
Brookings president Allen, a retired four-star general who resigned from the think tank after news of the FBI probe broke, is accused of lobbying on Qatar’s behalf without disclosing this work, as is required by FARA. Allen’s lobbying activities are alleged to have been motivated by Qatar’s massive donations to Brookings over the past decade and a half.
While the Qatar-Brookings relationship has fueled a push to regulate think tank funding, foreign countries have long subsidized top policy shops with the hope of influencing Congress.
The New York Times reported in 2014 that "more than a dozen prominent Washington research groups have received tens of millions of dollars from foreign governments in recent years while pushing United States government officials to adopt policies that often reflect the donors’ priorities."
The Atlantic Council enjoys close relations with Turkey and its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Free Beacon reported in 2020. This relationship is said to have jeopardized the think tank’s independence, as its Turkish benefactors push it to adopt views more favorable to its interests. The think tank even moved its annual Global Energy Forum conference to Abu Dhabi because Erdogan’s son-in-law "was basically the shadow organizer of the event," sources told the Free Beacon at the time.
Additionally, the China-United States Exchange Foundation, a group run by the Chinese Communist Party, donated millions to Brookings, the Center for American Progress, the Carter Center, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Free Beacon reported in November 2021.
At that time, Rep. Jim Banks (R., Ind.) was pushing a bill that would force those who testify before Congress to disclose any foreign funding received by their employers.
A 2020 study by the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative found that between 2014 and 2018, think tanks took in more than $174 million from nearly 900 individuals and groups from 80 countries.