Last Thursday, eight Senators introduced a bill to outlaw anonymous shell companies—entities used to hide the wealth of all sorts of criminals, including terrorists, tax evaders, kleptocrats, and human traffickers. The four Republicans and four Democrats all sit on the Senate Banking Committee and have spent the past year coordinating among their personal offices. The committee hasn’t yet taken up their work with dedicated hearings, drafts, or markups. This bipartisan push offers the moment for the committee to join the fight quickly and strongly. It’s not over yet, but this has the potential to go down as a case study of how Congress should operate, collaborating across parties and chambers to lead a whole-of-society campaign against a longstanding economic and security threat.
Benefits All Around
Before considering next steps, it’s worth reviewing the impressive advances this initiative has made since last summer, both substantively and politically. After spending years trapped behind congressional gridlock, the key that’s now opening the door to vast security and economic benefits is bipartisanship.
The advice of financial enforcement authorities going back more than a decade has been simple: Force companies to report the identities of their beneficial owners (that is, whoever controls the firm or enjoys its economic benefits) to the U.S. Treasury Department. A bill doing just that passed out of the House Financial Services Committee in June and is widely expected to find sufficient support to pass through the full House, after which it would be referred to the Senate Banking Committee.
Because this reform targets so many criminal elements and thus benefits almost all Americans (that is, the estimated 99.7 percent who don’t anonymously own shell companies), it has attracted one of the broadest political coalitions in recent history. The assortment of bedfellows includes national security experts, the FBI, district attorneys, police, sheriffs, labor, Treasury, big CEOs, small businesses, banks, realtors, religious groups, human rights watchdogs, environmentalists, and Delaware (the state most infamous for incorporating shell companies).
This wide range of support reflects the multitude of harms inflicted by the owners of anonymous shell companies, as illustrated by perspectives on opposite sides of the world. Chinese state companies, party elites, and criminal organizations use shell companies to enable sanctions evasion, fentanyl trade, and corruption in the Belt and Road Initiative. In the United States, more than three quarters of small business owners support this legislation because crooks and swindlers can stand behind shell companies to secretly raid law-abiding businesses through contract fraud, employee embezzlement, surreptitious lawsuits, and the exploitation of subsidies meant for small businesses.
On top of the benefits of reform, the new Senate bill ensures the reporting process for businesses is cheap, easy, and doesn’t introduce new legal risks. Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) highlighted eight safeguards in the bill such as embedding the ownership question within existing reporting forms, not requiring ongoing reporting unless ownership changes, providing that minor mistakes won’t be penalized, and strictly limiting access to the data within law enforcement.
Congress at Its Best
While the House of Representatives helped get the ball rolling, the substantive improvements and expansion of bipartisan support were developed over a year of quiet and collegial hard work in the Senate. Last week’s bill represents the culmination of an informal deliberative process for which the Founding Fathers designed the upper chamber.
However, this window of narrow bipartisanship won’t last long. Division in the Senate may escalate dramatically over the next couple months. Compromises will also be harder to finalize in an election year, and possibly after 2020 as well if the Senate and White House end up under the control of different parties.
Thus it is essential that the Banking Committee now moves swiftly—in the coming weeks, not months—to tackle the issue. That could mean marking up the existing bill, amending it to instead be co-sponsored by the chairman and ranking member, or a number of other legislative avenues.
In our politically rancorous times, keep an eye on this rare area where Congress is working exactly as it’s meant to.