Top Republican Pushes Congressional Witnesses To Disclose Foreign Influence

Jim Banks wants to curb Chinese influence in Washington

Rep. Jim Banks (R., Ind.) / Getty Images
November 23, 2021

A top Republican is pushing a bill aimed at curbing foreign influence in Washington.

Rep. Jim Banks (Ind.) on Tuesday introduced legislation that would require experts slated to give congressional testimony to disclose whether their employers accept foreign money. The proposal largely targets universities and think tanks, which provide a steady stream of expert witnesses for congressional foreign policy hearings.

While the bill would cover donations from all countries, Banks focuses on China, given the Communist regime's significant funding for prominent Washington-based think tanks. The China-United States Exchange Foundation, an arm of the Chinese Communist Party, has in recent years donated millions of dollars to the Brookings Institution, the Center for American Progress, the Carter Center, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. CIA director William Burns, the former president of Carnegie, testified this year that he cut ties with the Exchange Foundation because of its efforts to malignly influence American policymakers.

American think tanks have in recent years come under scrutiny for accepting foreign donations, often without fully disclosing the donations to the public. One study found that between 2014 and 2018 foreigners poured more than $174 million into think-tank coffers. Lawmakers and transparency groups have expressed concern that think-tank experts serve as vectors of influence—wittingly or unwittingly—for their corporate and foreign backers. Banks's bill would impose more stringent disclosure requirements to fix what he says are "significant loopholes" in existing "Truth in Transparency" rules.

"Congress works best when all the cards are face up on the table," Banks said in the statement that announced the bill.

Not all of China's influence efforts come through Communist Party front groups. Huawei donated $300,000 to the Brookings Institution for a study that touted the Chinese technology firm's surveillance products. The founder of Brookings's China Center, John L. Thornton, is the chairman of the Silk Road Finance Corporation, which partners with the Chinese government to fund projects for its foreign infrastructure initiative, Belt and Road. Brookings scholars have released reports and testified before Congress without disclosing those ties.

"Foreign adversaries like the Chinese Communist Party work every day to exploit America's openness and advance their agendas, often surreptitiously by funding researchers who then seek to shape policy," Foundation for the Defense of Democracies Action said in a statement.

Other unsavory regimes also fund some of Washington's most influential think tanks, whose scholars testify frequently before Congress. The Qatari embassy each year donates millions of dollars to Brookings. The Turkish government has in recent years forged close ties with the Atlantic Council through donations through its government agencies and state-owned companies.

Sources familiar with the Atlantic Council's activities say the think tank has tailored its academic research and events to requests from Turkish government officials. The Atlantic Council last year hosted an event that featured Ibrahim Kalin, the spokesman for Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Atlantic Council president Frederick Kempe was with Erdoğan when the strongman's body guards in May 2017 attacked peaceful protesters in Washington, D.C.