A narrow set of policy issues -- aviation programs, the Zika virus and drug prices -- are keeping the lobbying business afloat, even as some big players scale back amid the typical election-year falloff.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce boosted its spending in the first quarter of this year, according to disclosures filed with Congress this week. But other prominent players, such as the Business Roundtable, Squire Patton Boggs and Comcast Corp., are seeing business slow.
More players are expected to follow suit, with both chambers due to be in session for only about 13 weeks before the elections.
“In presidential election years, you’re going to get a slowdown in the second and third quarters, which will be more enhanced this year with the conventions being moved up and Congress being done here in the next six weeks with serious legislation,” said Rich Gold, who heads the lobbying practice at law firm Holland & Knight.
The Chamber of Commerce, the biggest spender on K Street, reported $15.8 million in lobbying, up from $14.7 million in the fourth quarter of 2015 and $13.8 million in the first quarter of last year. The sum doesn't include chamber affiliates such as a legal reform institute that reported nearly $7 million for this year’s first quarter.
A major focus was the just-completed reauthorization of federal aviation programs and a measure to increase federal funding for biomedical research and disease prevention. Though the chamber reports its tab for grass-roots organizing, it is not required to, and there is much behind-the-scenes influencing that is not subject to any federal disclosure.
The Business Roundtable, meanwhile, scaled back its lobbying efforts to $3.3 million for the first quarter from $4.8 million in the last quarter of 2015 and $4.5 million in the first quarter of last year. It disclosed lobbying on budget and tax measures as well as the aviation bill.
The American Medical Association spent $6.6 million in the first three months of this year, a boost over its $4.5 million from last year’s fourth quarter but slightly less than its first quarter 2015 tab of $6.7 million. The prominent doctors' trade group reported lobbying on policy responses to Zika, a mosquito-borne virus that public health officials have warned could spread in the U.S. this year.
In total, 70 lobbying entities — such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, the March of Dimes and the National Pest Management Association — reported work on Zika in the first quarter. It marked the first reporting period that the virus, which has been connected to birth defects, has appeared on lobbying forms.
The pharmaceutical industry also spent record sums amid rising congressional and regulatory interest in high drug prices.
The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America spent more than $5.9 million on its lobbying activities between January and March of this year — the most it spent in a single quarter since 2010, at the height of the frenzy over the federal health law. The Biotechnology Innovation Organization dropped over $2.2 million on influencing Congress and the federal government in the first quarter, about $100,000 more than its usual spend in recent years.
Most of the country's major pharmaceutical companies also spent more on K Street this quarter, including Pfizer Inc.; AbbVie Inc.; Gilead Sciences Inc.; AstraZeneca PLC; Novartis International AG; and Merck & Co. Inc. Together, those companies spent more than $14.3 million in the first quarter, up from $10.9 million in the same period in 2015.
Elsewhere, more than 120 lobbying outfits and clients -- including Airbus Group, the American Civil Liberties Union and Google -- reported working on policy issues concerning drones during the first three months of this year. That's a more than threefold jump from the corresponding period last year, when about 35 firms reported working on issues affecting the unmanned aircraft.
In the tech industry, Facebook got more social on K Street.
The company reported $2.8 million on federal lobbying in January through March of this year, up from $2.1 million in the fourth quarter of last year and from the first quarter of last year, when it reported $2.4 million. The social media company is involved in cybersecurity, government surveillance, immigration and tax matters.
Though executives at lobbying firms said they are still picking up new business, they're readying for a slide in productivity.
Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck reported it was paid $6.8 million in the first quarter, a drop from last year’s fourth quarter tally of $7.4 million but a boost over the first quarter of 2015, when it reported $5.9 million.
“We’re well positioned to be helpful to our clients in a number of areas where there’s still congressional activity,” said Republican Marc Lampkin, managing partner of the firm’s Washington office. “People still have an interest in the appropriations process.”
Brownstein Hyatt signed clients including the Credit Union National Association, the National Restaurant Association and Safe Rx, a Colorado company that is marketing secure prescription drug containers as a way to curb illegal sales of opioids, Lampkin said.
The task forces that House Speaker Paul D. Ryan , R-Wis., established on a tax overhaul and other issues have generated client interest, he added.
“What the speaker is trying to do is not just fill the gap of the extended presidential race but keep congressional Republicans at the forefront of policy development,” Lampkin said.
At Holland & Knight, executives expect a busy fourth quarter as clients prepare for the next Congress and the new president, Gold said. His shop reported a decline in federal lobbying revenue from $5 million in the last quarter of 2015 to $4.8 million in the first three months of 2016. Holland & Knight also reported $4.8 million in the first quarter of 2015.
The reportable lobbying revenue at another top lobbying firm, Squire Patton Boggs, dipped to $4.6 million from $6.7 million during the same period last year and from $5.5 million in last year’s fourth quarter.
Dave Schnittger, a senior policy adviser at the firm, said much of the shop's revenue growth is taking place outside the scope of the federal disclosures, which he said “only captures a fraction of the policy work the firm does.”
He noted the firm has added new lobbyists and policy wonks, especially in its health care and transportation teams.