Congress

Senators seek GOP support for bill to crack down on anonymous shell companies

Bill seeks to make it harder for criminals and terrorists to hide assets and launder money

Senate Banking Chairman Mickael D. Crapo, R-Idaho, and ranking Democrat Sherrod Brown of Ohio say they are working on a version of the bill they hope can gain more GOP support than its House counterpart. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

After only 25 House Republicans voted for passage of a bill that would curb the use of anonymous shell companies, the bipartisan drafters of a Senate version are negotiating tweaks designed to win more GOP support.

The House on Tuesday voted 249-173 to pass its version of the bill, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney of New York, after adding the text of another bill from Democratic Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri that would update the nation’s anti-money laundering laws.

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Combined, the House-passed legislative text lines up with a Senate a bill introduced this month by a bipartisan group of eight members of the Senate Banking Committee.

Both the House and Senate measures would require corporate entities to report the identities of beneficial owners to the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), making it harder for criminals or terrorists to hide assets and launder money through a series of limited liability companies or corporations.

The bills would also increase FinCEN staffing, encourage more coordination between FinCEN and Justice Department investigators, require the attorney general and Treasury secretary to consider raising the monetary threshold for banks filing suspicious activity reports, and update the definition of  “coins and currency” to include cryptocurrencies.

The Senate co-sponsors — Democrats Mark Warner of Virginia, Doug Jones of Alabama, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada; along with Republicans Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Mike Rounds of South Dakota, John Kennedy of Louisiana and Jerry Moran of Kansas — are talking to Senate Banking Chairman Michael D. Crapo of Idaho and his panel’s ranking Democrat, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, to try making the bill more appealing.

“We’re working with the chairman and Sen. Brown to try to get a committee consensus position that can pass not only the committee but the Senate, especially in light of the party-line vote on the House version,” Cotton told CQ Roll Call on Thursday.

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More than a hundred banks, multinational corporations, law enforcement agencies, national security experts, human rights watchdogs and environmental groups endorsed the legislation, saying it would help prevent tax evasion and make anti-money laundering compliance cheaper and more effective.

But the National Federation of Independent Businesses whipped up opposition, calling the ownership disclosures a burden on small businesses.

The House bill’s supporters had hoped that the combined bill would attract more Republican support, given that Cleaver’s bill was approved in committee by a vote of 55-0, while only 10 Republicans backed Maloney’s bill. Maloney supported some Republican-sponsored amendments in committee and on the floor, and the White House issued a supportive statement of administrative policy minutes before the Tuesday vote.

But only 25 Republicans supported the measure. House Republicans Ted Budd of North Carolina and Frank D. Lucas of Oklahoma voted against it on the floor after supporting both bills in committee. And the co-sponsor of Cleaver’s bill, Republican Rep. Steve Stivers of Ohio, gave a floor speech in opposition to the bill. Five conservative Democrats also voted against it.

Seeking Senate support

The House measure contains fewer changes to anti-money laundering rules than the Senate’s.

Brown said Thursday that he was working with Crapo on a separate bill based on the House-passed measure. “Yep, we’re working on it still,” Brown said. “Not there yet. We’re not in 100 percent agreement yet, but we are serious about it.”

“We want to come out with something that the committee can mostly be overwhelmingly for,” Brown said, adding that Cotton and his co-sponsors were “part of the discussion.”

Ultimately, Crapo and Brown may introduce a bill that combines provisions of the Maloney-Cleaver bill and the Warner-Cotton bill along with other changes.

Crapo said Thursday he hopes to bring a bill to markup this year, saying he was working with Cotton and his co-sponsors.

The idea of requiring companies to divulge their owners has been kicking around Congress for more than a decade, but this is the closest it has gotten to becoming law. Beyond the Senate co-sponsors, Crapo and Brown, the idea has received support from a number of Senate Republicans: Marco Rubio of Florida co-sponsored a companion to Maloney’s bill with Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon; Thom Tillis of North Carolina worked on legislation with Cotton and Warner last year that was never introduced; and Charles E. Grassley of Iowa co-sponsored a similar bill this year with Democrats Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Dianne Feinstein of California that Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham of South Carolina held a sympathetic hearing on.

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