Change of government and political turmoil keep lobbyists busy, disclosures show

Voting rights join defense, taxes and health care as issues getting attention

Coca-Cola has faced bipartisan political pressure over a new elections law in Georgia, where it is headquartered. The company’s Washington lobbyists worked on voting rights matters this year, new disclosures show. (Jeff Greenberg/Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty Images file photo)
Coca-Cola has faced bipartisan political pressure over a new elections law in Georgia, where it is headquartered. The company’s Washington lobbyists worked on voting rights matters this year, new disclosures show. (Jeff Greenberg/Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty Images file photo)
Posted April 21, 2021 at 3:56pm

Infrastructure, tax and climate proposals are fueling K Street’s bottom line this year, as corporate America also veers into fights over voting laws amid a perilous political landscape for business interests. 

The new Biden administration and all-Democratic control of Capitol Hill have prompted a shift in federal policy priorities as well as a shuffling of outside consultants, Washington lobbyists say. The administration’s infrastructure proposal, and possible tax increases to help pay for it, are likely to dominate the lobbying agenda this year. A return of congressional earmarks and possible additional COVID-19 relief measures are joining immigration, health care, defense and trade as top topics in quarterly lobbying disclosures filed this week with the House and Senate. 

Still, as many K Street firms reported an uptick in revenue during the first quarter of this year, the 10 biggest spenders on federal lobbying shelled out less money ($68.2 million) than during the same period in 2020 ($81.6 million), when lawmakers rushed relief to businesses and people reeling from the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, disclosures show. This quarter began with the violent Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol and many corporations suspending their political donations in response. 

Lobbyists say they expect a big year ahead, as new clients seek help in navigating an oftentimes fraught environment. 

“Right now, it’s a feeding frenzy,” said Rich Gold, who leads the lobbying practice at Holland & Knight. Gold said his shop signed 19 new clients between January and March and expects more in the coming months.

The firm’s overall lobbying revenue hit $7.4 million in the first three months of the year, an increase compared with both last year’s first quarter ($6.4 million) and the fourth quarter of 2020 ($7.35 million).

Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, one of the city’s top-grossing lobbying firms, reported $12.5 million in fees in the first quarter, down from $12.6 million in the first quarter of last year but up slightly from $12.4 million in 2020’s final quarter. 

Ed Pagano, a partner with Akin Gump, said he expects a “vigorous debate” over infrastructure in the coming months.

“For the lobbying industry, we want to have our clients in the best positions, so certainly we’re very active on what is going to be included in the final definition of infrastructure,” he said.

Voting rights getting attention

Though much of corporate America’s lobbying agenda consists of traditional business fights over such matters as tax and health policy, a new issue has emerged for some of the biggest companies and groups: voting rights. 

Coca-Cola, UPS, HP and the Business Roundtable all disclosed lobbying on voting rights matters in the first three months of this year — an issue they did not report working on during the first quarter of 2020. The lobbying disclosure law does not require companies to say how much money they spent on each issue, or what positions they took. But the inclusion of the issue as one that corporate lobbyists discussed with members of Congress or their staffs shows how these policy fights, from state legislatures to Capitol Hill, have reverberated to corporate executive suites.  

Republicans have urged people to boycott Coca-Cola products, for example, as the Atlanta-based company waded into the debate over an elections and voting law in its home state of Georgia. At the same time, the company faced pressure from voting rights advocates, including a group of Black ministers, who wanted the company to use its influence to keep the state from changing voting laws. The company did not respond to a request for comment.

The Business Roundtable disclosed in its first-quarter report that it was lobbying on issues “relating to federal voting rights legislation” as well as congressional Democrats’ major overhaul of elections, voting, campaign finance and lobbying laws, a bill given the ceremonial top-priority number of HR 1. 

A spokesperson for the business group referred to a late March statement that said Business Roundtable members “believe state laws must safeguard and guarantee the right to vote. Over the course of our nation’s history, the right to vote was hard fought for so many Americans, particularly women and people of color. We call on elected officials across the country to commit to bipartisan efforts to provide greater access to voting and encourage broad voter participation.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce opposes HR 1. Facebook, the social media giant, also disclosed lobbying on the 800-page bill, which is set for Senate committee consideration next month. A company spokesman did not respond to a request for comment about Facebook’s position on the legislation. 

Social justice focus for some clients

Karishma Shah Page, a leader of the public policy practice at K&L Gates, said that in addition to the more typical policy fights for business interests, clients also are grappling with civil rights and justice matters.  

“We’ve been in a different and evolving environment for lobbying since last year,” she said. “Not only the change in our day-to-day of a very in-person business that has been impacted by the pandemic but also by the issues around social justice.”

The firm’s lobbying revenue went up to $4.8 million in the first quarter from $4.7 million in early 2020. The firm also signed on 25 new clients in the first quarter, Page added, reflecting “the high demand for lobbying services.” 

Lobbyists said the historic nature of the moment wasn’t lost on them, or their clients. 

“We’re at a unique period in American history,” said Marc Lampkin who runs the Washington office of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. Issues of diversity, equity and inclusion are on policymakers’ agendas, he added. DEI issues have also become a focus for a growing group of investors.

“It’s inevitable that big corporate entities are going to be thrust in the middle of that,” Lampkin said. “But I think most companies have found a way to balance all of the issues in doing it, while still maintaining their presence in Washington as policy advocates for their respective issues.”