Today US lawmakers will try once more to bring their country in line with the rest of the Western world on an age-old problem: money-laundering. Five members of Congress from both parties will announce bills in the House and Senate that would force American firms to disclose who actually owns them. This, the theory goes, would give the authorities a much easier time tracking down the drug kingpins, terrorist financiers, and kleptocrats who love using anonymous shell companies to hide their illicit money.
This will be New York representative Carolyn Maloney’s fifth attempt at passing such a law. The last bill, in 2016, was on the table as the explosive Panama Papers revelations unfolded to reveal how secretive offshore companies enable a global web of corruption. Yet neither the House nor the Senate bill made it out of committee hearings, despite having bipartisan support. “[They] failed because of opposition from trade organizations that at least in part support the participants in the dark economy that we’re trying to bring a little sunlight into,” says Democratic senator Sheldon Whitehouse, co-sponsor of the latest Senate bill.
All this has left the United States trailing its allies in Europe, whose five largest economies are taking unprecedented measures to share information on shady corporate ownership. The last time the US bills were introduced, Britain, Norway, and Denmark had already been working for a couple of years to make a completely public register of the beneficial owners of every company.
“We’re the only advanced country in the world that doesn’t require disclosure of beneficial ownership, and quite frankly I find that embarrassing,” says Maloney. “Somebody called me and asked, ‘How come there are no Americans in the Panama Papers?’ I said, ‘Because we don’t have to go to Panama—we can hide it right here in US.’ It’s outrageous.”
Whitehouse is even blunter: “We are an embarrassing laggard in an area where we should be leaders if we are to be a ‘city on a hill.’ You can’t be a ‘city on a hill’ when you’re in the gutter with the criminals and the kleptocrats.”
This time, though, the five lawmakers—who include the Republican chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Chuck Grassley, and Republican congressmen Peter King and Ed Royce—believe they can build support for the law by adding a new argument in its favor: national security.
Whitehouse, for example, points to Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election to highlight how shell companies “are a means to hide both the corruption and the election interference that are the dark arts of [Russian president Vladimir] Putin’s strategy.” He cites reports like “The Kremlin Playbook” (pdf) by think tank CSIS, which shows that Moscow interfered in Central and Eastern European countries by taking over crucial sections of the economy through shell companies. (Mark Galeotti, a Russia expert at the International Relations Institute Prague, agrees this will help national security, but argues that Russia is in fact more bogeyman than threat: “I’m much more concerned about richer countries like China using it in the future, having seen how vulnerable America is, than I am about rather impoverished Russia.”)
For Maloney, meanwhile, terrorist financing is a major threat. She argues that terrorist organizations can get money into the United States by buying up properties through shell companies, and then sell them to finance attacks. “How irresponsible do you have to be to not know who owns your properties?” she asks. “We had a bomb go off in my district on 23rd street [in Manhattan] maybe four months ago, and you wonder where they got the money from…The longer we wait to fix the the problem the more we put our country at risk.”
This time around, the bills can also count on the backing of financial institutions, which have been hit with hefty fines in recent years for not doing enough research on their customers. The bills stipulate that banks can access beneficial ownership information with their clients’ permission—if clients don’t give permission, that should be a red flag—and banking associations are in favor (paywall). These endorsements, coupled with support from law enforcement, should help to get previously wary Republicans onside, hopes Maloney, a Democrat. Two important House Republicans have already promised to seriously examine the issue in this Congress: Financial Services Committee chair Jeb Hansarling and Terrorism and Illicit Finance Subcommittee chair Stevan Pearce.
Even if they gather enough support in Congress, however, the bills could meet hurdles in the administration. President Donald Trump, who would have to sign the bill into law, has long made ample use of shell companies, which obscure (paywall) exactly what he owns and owes. A recent analysis by USA Today found that 70% of buyers of Trump properties in the last year were shell companies.
Maloney hopefully points out that Treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin promised in his confirmation hearing to work with Congress to “understand this issue.” But Mnuchin himself failed to disclose $100 million worth of assets held in a Cayman Islands shell company. The US Chamber of Commerce has also previously opposed similar bills as placing “unnecessary regulatory burdens on American businesses,” while the American Bar Association said it had a handful of problems with the 2016 bills.
Finally, while transparency advocates are very much in favor of the effort, they say tightening laws around shell companies still leaves large gaps in America’s defenses against money-laundering. “The US is getting on the train in the right direction but there’s more work still to do,” says Shruti Shah, vice president of the Coalition for Integrity, formerly the US branch of Transparency International. “We need an entire anti-money laundering system…[which] requires multiple checks and balances; you can’t just have one control because that’s too easy to circumvent.” She points to two particular weaknesses: the lack of due diligence that law firms have to do on their clients, and that real-estate agents don’t have to find out who they’re ultimately selling to or whether those clients’ funds were legally gained.
Alexandra Wrage, president of anti-corruption organization TRACE, says the ideal for this bill would be to make a public registry of companies’ beneficial owners, as some European countries have done. The lawmakers agree but say they have do what’s politically feasible. “Our shot here is to keep it bipartisan and get this nailed down,” says Whitehouse. “We can work on other things in parallel—this is bigger than those other things.”