Congress

Facebook posts biggest quarterly lobby tab, as business, health interests dominate K Street

Impeachment is not slowing down lobbying efforts

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in 2018. Facebook spent a record amount on lobbying this year. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Facebook is on pace to spend more on federal lobbying this year than ever before, according to public disclosures out this week, as the social media giant’s CEO prepares to testify Wednesday on Capitol Hill.

The company — at the center of debates over the spread of false information, data privacy and others — spent $12.3 million to lobby the federal government in the first nine months of the year. In 2018, Facebook shelled out $12.6 million for 12 months of lobbying.

[Disinformation moves from fringe sites to Facebook, YouTube]

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg will appear Wednesday before the House Financial Services Committee, which is probing the company’s role in the housing market and in a new cryptocurrency called Libra.

The tech company’s investment in K Street, a record $4.77 million in the third quarter of this year, has catapulted it into the top 10 biggest clients in Washington, D.C.

Impeachment no impediment

Health care, pharmaceutical, and broader big-business interests, along with a liberal organization, dominated the top tier during the first three-quarters of 2019, new lobbying disclosures filed with the clerk of the House and the secretary of the Senate show.

Lobbyists say that even with Capitol Hill and the White House absorbed in House Democrats’ official impeachment inquiry, lawmakers and the executive branch have continued to fuel K Street activity, especially in health care, technology, immigration and trade policy.

“We continue to see clients ramping up their engagement in D.C., especially in trying to improve the playing fields that shape policymakers’ views of tough issues — trade, technology regulation, immigration, and travel, to name a few,” said Stewart Verdery, a GOP lobbyist who runs Monument Advocacy.

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Not only are clients looking to wrap up debates in 2019, but they also are looking toward next year’s elections.

“We are also increasingly being asked to map up what 2021 looks like under various election scenarios, especially if there were to be all-left control of power,” added Verdery, whose registered lobbying clients include the drug industry’s leading trade group, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, as well as Starbucks and PepsiCo.

Amazon and Google

The only other tech company among the top tier for 2019 is Amazon, which disclosed lobbying on numerous policy matters including cybersecurity, trade, and the National Defense Authorization Act. Google’s spending on federal lobbying, $9.1 million so far this year, has declined, as the company has restructured its in-house roster of lobbyists and its network of outside consultants.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, meanwhile, continued its long run as the top spender on federal lobbying campaigns, while the National Association of Realtors came in at No. 2.

The chamber’s top legislative priority is getting the revised North American Free Trade Agreement, known as the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, passed, said Neil Bradley, executive vice president and chief policy officer at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber also has lobbied against a Democratic prescription drug pricing bill, but Bradley said the group does support some “compromises,” including helping patients with out-of-pocket expenses and accelerating the regulatory approval of generics, but not changing patent protections for name-brand medications.

Liberals spending too

The Open Society Policy Center, a liberal organization with ties to the big donor George Soros, disclosed spending nearly $16 million on lobbying campaigns from July 1 through Sept. 30. 

Sarah Margon, director of foreign policy advocacy at the center, said in an email that, among other matters, the group is working with “a broad, bipartisan coalition of good- government, national security, and human rights groups to persuade Congress to reassert its critical role when it comes to war powers, emergency powers, and arms sales.”

“Congress’ power to authorize war is a fundamental principle in our Constitution, which has been deeply eroded over decades,” Margon added. “Members of Congress in both parties have failed to live up to this responsibility, not only when it comes to authorizing the use of force but more generally across a range of other related national security powers and oversight obligations.”

Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, the city’s largest federal lobbying practice as measured in publicly disclosed revenue, has reported earning $31.2 million from clients so far this year.

“Contrary to conventional wisdom about legislative activity in Washington, this year has been exceptionally busy for our firm and our clients, leading to both our largest quarter and our largest back-to-back quarters in firm history,” said Akin Gump partner Hunter Bates, a former top aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

The firm added a trio of recent lawmakers: ex-Sen. Joe Donnelly, a Democrat from Indiana, and former GOP Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida and Texan Lamar Smith.

Walk and chew gum

Health care, transportation, technology and regulatory work across the executive branch have been major areas for another top federal lobbying practice, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck.

“What Congress is proving to be is they can walk and chew gum,” said Marc Lampkin, who manages the firm’s Washington, D.C., office. “If you listen to all the talking heads, you’d think there was nothing going on but impeachment and oversight. There’s a lot more.”

He noted that work on the NAFTA re-do and continued interest in the congressional budget and appropriations process as the big drivers of K Street business.  

Health care, long a dominant issue on K Street, has continued to fuel the lobbying sector with PhRMA, the American Medical Association, and the American Hospital Association all reporting multimillion-dollar expenditures.

The policy debates, both in Congress and on the 2020 campaign trail, over “Medicare for All” and prescription drug prices have sparked record levels of spending among some organizations not known for big lobbying tabs.

The conservative lobbying and grassroots group FreedomWorks disclosed spending more than $2.7 million, the most it ever has reported shelling out, in just this year’s third quarter alone — more than it disclosed spending in all of last year ($1.9 million).

“I would imagine we’re going to continue doing actions on health care proposals that take the wrong approach,” said Jason Pye, FreedomWorks’ vice president of legislative affairs.

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