Over the past year and a half, regimes throughout the Middle East, from Turkey to the United Arab Emirates, have been snapping up former members of Congress to help push their interests in Washington.
For ex-congressman and GOP strategist Vin Weber, Christmas came a few days early and from an unlikely source: the Qatari government. In December, three days before the holiday, the former Minnesota lawmaker and his lobbying firm, Mercury LLC, signed a lucrative lobbying contract with theGulf State,receiving a $465,000 advance for the first few months of work.
Weber isn't alone. Over the past year and a half, regimes throughout the Middle East, from Turkey to the United Arab Emirates, have gone on what appears to be a shopping spree for former members of Congress. Compared to the rest of the world, Middle East governments have accounted for more than fifty percent of the latest revolving door hires for former lawmakers during this time period, according to a review of disclosures by VICE.
It's not out of the ordinary for special interest groups to enlist retired lawmakers-turned-lobbyists to peddle influence in the U.S. Capitol. What's unique here is that most special interests aren't countries home to investors accused of providing support to anti-American militants in Syria or engaged in multi-billion dollar arms deals that require American military approval, as is the case with Qatar and some of its regional neighbors.
What's also striking about the latest surge in foreign lobbying is that many of these former lawmakers maintain influence that extends well beyond the halls of Congress. Former Michigan Representative Pete Hoekstra, who used to chair the House Intelligence Committee, appears regularly in the media to demand that the US increase its arms assistance to the Kurds in northern Iraq. Writing for the conservative news outlet National Review, Hoekstra argued that, "the United States needs to immediately provide [the Peshmerga] with more than light arms and artillery to tip the scales in their favor and overcome the firepower of the Islamists." In that instance and in others, Hoekstra has often not disclosed that since August 12th, he has worked as a paid representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government, which relies on the beleaguered Peshmerga militia for safety against ISIS.
The same goes for former US Senator Norm Coleman, a lobbyist who serves on the board of the influential Republican Jewish Coalition, and whose Super PAC, American Action Network, spent over $12.3 million to help elect Republicans last year. Since July, Coleman has been a registered lobbyist for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, hired in part to work on sanctions against Iran, a key priority of Saudi Arabia's ruling family. Shortly after signing up as a lobbyist for the Saudis, Coleman, introduced only as a former Senator, gave a speech on Capitol Hill imploring his congressional allies to realize that Israel and Saudi Arabia have many shared policy priorities, and that the United States "should be hand in glove with our allies in the region." And in a Twitter message greeting the new Congress last week, Coleman wrote that a "nuclear Iran" is the biggest threat and linked to an article calling for Congress to prioritize a new round of Iran sanctions.
Other lawmakers to join the gravy train of new Middle East lobbying business include former Congressman Mike Castle, a Delaware Republican who now represents the United Arab Emirates; the bipartisan duo of former Senators John Breaux (D-Louisiana) and Trent Lott (R-Mississippi) who now also work for the Kurdish government; and former Congressman Bill Delahunt, a Democrat from Massachusetts who is now on the payroll of Azerbaijan.
The Republic of Turkey—one of the most prolific sources for foreign lobbying contracts and the third largest sponsor of congressional vacation junkets—also renewed its longstanding business with its team of lawmaker-lobbyists, including former Senator Tim Hutchinson, former Democratic House leader Dick Gephardt, former Republican Speaker of the House Denny Hastert, and ex-congressman Al Wynn.
Like many of Middle East governments, Turkey is heavily concerned with the rising instability in the region, and has faced increasing criticism for failing to intervene against the Islamic State in Syria. For Gephardt, whose contract is worth $1.4 million per year,that meant multiple contacts to House and Senate members on supporting rebel groups and foreign aid in Syria last year. He also distributed a pamphlet, according to disclosures, titled " Stop the Turkey Bashing."
It's not always clear what these lawmaker-lobbyists say or do on behalf of their foreign supervisors, but what is clear is that many of these politicians are willing to renege on their past commitments to human rights. Delahunt, for example, led inquiries in Congress to cast a light into the brutal abuses of Azerbaijan. If anything, Azerbaijan has gotten worse, according to international observers, who note that since last year, the country has gone on an unprecedented crackdown of activists, journalists, and other perceived opponents of the regime. But instead of pushing back against such crimes, Delahunt now works to put a positive spin on the developments.
Similarly, Coleman, when he was still a Senator from Minnesota, signed off on letters chastising the Saudi government for financing anti-Semitic propaganda throughout the world. Though Saudi Arabia has stepped up its support for extremists, as well as campaigns against dissent—executing petty criminals, drug dealers, and even those accused of "sorcery" with gruesome beheadings last year—with $60,000 per month now billed to the Saudi government by his law firm, Coleman is no longer a critic.
The influx of foreign influence into Washington is a growing phenomenon. As the New York Times reported late last year, major think tanks, including the Brookings Institute and the Atlantic Council, have allowed foreign donors to call the shots on their policy prescriptions. Major trade groups that can now play an unlimited role in influencing elections, thanks to the Citizens United ruling, receive direct funds from corporations headquartered in foreign lands. The American Petroleum Institute, for instance, is run by a board of directors that includes an executive from ARAMCO, the Saudi state-owned oil company that takes its orders from the Saudi ruling family.
Lobbying these days is so much more than simply pigeonholing lawmakers as they leave the committee room. Indeed, the deal between Vin Weber and Qatar stipulates that Weber's firm, a team that includes the former US Ambassador to Qatar, will attempt to influence American foreign policy through outreach to non-government groups "such as think tanks and businesses." Weber himself is a close advisor to many GOP leaders, including former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, and helped lead a campaign group that spent over $8 million on the elections last year. With that much influence, he's probably worth every penny to the ruling Al Thani family.
So it should be of little surprise that firms seeking to control the direction of U.S. foreign policy are now on a hiring spree of lawmakers. In an era of big money politics, in which those with deep pockets have the most access and influence over government, it's only natural that lawmakers are gravitating to the next payday. Why only work for J.P. Morgan or Koch Industries when there are eager clients in Abu Dhabi and Doha?
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