Lobbying on coronavirus surges as Congress doles out trillions

Almost without exception, COVID mentioned in top spenders‘ disclosures

New disclosures show that nearly all the companies and groups that routinely spend the most on lobbying added the coronavirus to the issues on which they sought Capitol Hill influence during the first three months of this year.  (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
New disclosures show that nearly all the companies and groups that routinely spend the most on lobbying added the coronavirus to the issues on which they sought Capitol Hill influence during the first three months of this year. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted April 21, 2020 at 12:06pm

The coronavirus pandemic, which upended the nation’s policy and political agendas beginning in March, also fueled an escalation in federal lobbying, recent public disclosures show.

The associations and corporations that routinely spend the most money on campaigns to influence the federal government, almost without exception, reported lobbying on coronavirus matters during the first three months of the year. Companies and groups involved in health care, defense, business and technology focused largely on legislative measures aimed at rescuing the plummeting economy amid unprecedented unemployment as businesses closed and most Americans sheltered at home.

Social media giant Facebook spent the most it ever has in a quarter, $5.3 million, while the National Association of Realtors disclosed shelling out $13.6 million in the first quarter, more than it spent in any quarter of last year, according to disclosures filed this week.

The disclosures require companies to disclose the issues on which they tried to influence Congress, but they do not have to specify what they were getting lawmakers to do.

Still, K Street lobbyists say they fear that as the pandemic drags on and wreaks even potentially worse havoc on the global economy, it could ultimately hit their own industry’s bottom line, too.

“There’s a worry that the clients will, because of the economic standstill, have to go and cut back their expenditures,” said lobbyist Marc Lampkin, a Republican who leads the government relations practice at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. “When revenues constrict, every business has to make cuts, and we worry about that.”

But so far, a global pandemic has been good for the business of lobbying.

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From January through March, lobbying revenues hit $11.5 million at Brownstein Hyatt, one of the city’s largest practices, up from from $9.2 million during the first quarter of last year. The firm’s first quarter 2020 revenue was about the same as the final three months of 2019, an unusually hot period for K Street as Congress moved on major issues including a trade deal with Canada and Mexico and made permanent some long-sought tax breaks.

The firm’s first quarter clients included the U.S. Travel Association, the American Petroleum Institute and medical device association AdvaMed, which paid the firm $520,000 during the first quarter, according to disclosures filed with Congress.

Big spenders

All told, spending by the top 10 biggest companies or associations totaled more than $81.6 million during the first quarter of 2020, about 3 percent more than the $79 million during last year’s same period. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce topped the list with $21.6 million, about the same as $22.1 million during the same period last year.

The Open Society Policy Center, a liberal organization with ties to the big donor George Soros, disclosed spending $5 million on foreign policy and defense issues in the first quarter but filed to terminate its lobbying activities as of March 31. Jonathan Kaplan, a spokesman, said the group’s registered lobbyists departed the organization. "Of course, we will continue abiding by the rules, and register if or when we trigger the requirements again," he said in an email.

Lampkin says much of the coronavirus lobbying is happening this month and will show up in public filings due this summer.

“Our forecast is that at least through this next quarter you will see a continued and steady pace of clients coming to Washington, trying to understand and shape the government’s response to COVID-19,” Lampkin said. As more businesses run out of cash to make payroll and operating expenses, he added, more will turn to the federal government with the help of K Street insiders.

And already industries, and policy makers, are plotting how to spur economic growth once the pandemic begins to subside.

“I’m pretty good at predicting these things, and I would not have anticipated that kind of uptick,” said Rich Gold, who runs the lobbying practice at Holland & Knight. His firm’s lobbying revenue was up in the first quarter when compared to last year’s first quarter ($5.7 million) and about the same as last year’s fourth quarter of about $6.4 million.

“Normally, in a presidential election year we would see drop off,” he said.

Gold says most of his firm’s increase in business related to COVID-19 hasn’t yet shown up in public disclosures with many new clients just signing on this month. Among its newest clients is the pharmaceutical company Mylan Inc.

Gold said that some of his shop’s new clients are looking to get federal approval for new products, drugs or COVID-19 testing supplies, related to the pandemic.

COVID-19 response

Pharmaceutical and health care groups, which usually dominate the top tier of lobbying expenditures, remained steady players during the first quarter.

The drug industry’s chief lobby, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, disclosed spending $9 million, a 9 percent drop from the first quarter of 2019 ($9.9 million), but more than the $6 million per quarter average for the rest of 2019. PhRMA disclosed lobbying on numerous coronavirus matters during the first quarter including on vaccines and drug approvals by the Food and Drug Administration.

Defense industry giant Northrop Grumman Corp. disclosed spending less on lobbying, at $4.8 million, in the first quarter of this year than in 2019 when it reported $5.6 million. But that’s also more than the $2.6 million it averaged in other quarters last year. The company is one that did not specifically list COVID-19 as a policy issue during the first quarter.

Some companies and industries hit hard by the pandemic reported a big uptick in lobbying during the first quarter.

Disney — which runs studios, amusement parks and even cruises — boosted its lobbying tab to $1.4 million during the first quarter after not cracking $1 million in any quarter last year. Coronavirus relief legislation was among several matters Disney sought congressional action on, during the first three months of 2020.

Airlines for America, the main lobbying group of the airline industry, also disclosed spending more in the first quarter of this year with $1.9 million, up from an average quarterly tab last year of $1.3 million. Congress set aside billions of dollars for the industry in recent legislation, as airlines have canceled flights around the world.

The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States disclosed spending $1.3 million on lobbying the federal government during the first three months of the year, as it pressed lawmakers to remove a tax on alcohol used to make hand sanitizer and for money for businesses hurt by the COVID-19 crisis, lobbying disclosures show. Last year the group disclosed that it spent $1.1 million on federal lobbying efforts in the first quarter, while it disclosed just under $1 million in last year’s fourth quarter.