Congress in recent decades has abdicated much of its foreign policy responsibilities to the executive branch. The Senate confirms the president’s nominees for ambassadorships and high-level State Department positions. The House begins the process to appropriate funding for foreign aid. And there is, of course, oversight.
Yet in the Trump era, the legislative branch has rarely forged an effective bipartisan front to restrain the nation’s chief executive.
Sometimes, however, a few sharp, well-timed bursts of congressional action can get a foreign authoritarian’s attention.
That is what appears to have happened with Bidzina Ivanishvili, a former Georgian prime minister, his country’s wealthiest citizen and effectively the country’s shadow boss. Disturbed by the country’s slide into authoritarianism, Congress has sent his hand-picked prime minister a succession of letters that have pricked him into action.
Earlier this month, the law firm of Hogan Lovells signed a $75,000 a month contract to represent the Georgian Dream party, which Ivanishvili founded in 2012 and runs to this day.
A letter attached to the firm’s Foreign Agent Registration Act filing with the Justice Department promises assistance in everything from legal analysis to public advocacy in Washington. What stands out, though, is that the firm will be representing Ivanishvili’s political party and not the government that party currently controls.
"The Firm will be collaborating with and may be receiving guidance from Georgian elected officials," former Republican Senator Norm Coleman wrote in a January 21 letter to Ivanishvili.
"But will be acting solely at the direction and control of the political party itself, Georgian Dream."
This is important for a few reasons. To start, Ivanishvili is responsible for Georgia’s regression into repression. Georgia has run through a string of recent prime ministers who have been effectively consolidating control of the country, most recently intimidating and arresting members of Ivanishvili's opposition.
The latest example of this came on Monday, when the Supreme Court sentenced the former mayor of Tbilisi, Gigi Ugulava, to three years in prison for a crime for which he already was imprisoned.
The arrest led opposition parties to cancel negotiations with Ivanishvili's party, and Ugulava blamed the oligarch for the reopening and resentencing of his case.
The lobbying contract itself was signed after letters were sent by Sen. Roger Wicker, the Republican chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission and bipartisan leaders of the House Georgia Caucus to Georgia's prime minister protesting the arrests and plans to pack the Supreme Court.
The latest letter from Congress raising concerns about these matters was sent last month from the Republican chairman and a leading Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Coleman has a difficult case to make. With authoritarian allies like Saudi Arabia, it's possible to argue that America must be lenient for strategic reasons. But Georgia was able to build a close relationship with Washington in the last 15 years because of its commitment to the rule of law and competitive elections.
Coleman's new client is unfortunately on the other side of that issue. No amount of spin will change that fact.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun, and UPI. To read more of his reports, Go Here Now.