Sunday, September 7, 2014

pay piper, call tune

The New York Times has a major story documenting foreign government contributions to think tanks as a tool of their foreign policy. The think tanks, of course, deny that the money has a pernicious influence. I think the U.S. recipients are naive.

A 1938 law, which also provided the framework for lobbying and election campaign laws, required agents of foreign governments to register and report their activities to influence U.S. officials and even the general public. The transparency of reporting was deemed sufficient to reduce secret influence. The law was passed to expose and counteract pro-Nazi activities.

The laws regulating lobbying also require registration of anyone, American or foreign, trying to influence executive or legislative branch actions. Many foreign governments regularly hire firms not only for direct lobbying but also for public relations campaigns on their behalf.

The whole field of conflict of interest has been steadily evolving toward greater disclosures and tighter restrictions. Members of Congress used to get "honoraria" for speeches to interest groups. No longer. But there are still loopholes.

The think tanks may like to believe that their views are independent of their sponsors, but the pressure is still there, if not for today, then for renewal of a contract in the future. And the Times quotes documents and some scholars that are much more explicit on the positions taken by the think tanks.

I hope we use this report to rethink all of the influence peddling techniques used, not just by foreign governments, and force recipients of funds to be more cautious and transparent when they take special interest money.

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