The renegotiated trade deal with Canada and Mexico, an elusive infrastructure package and debate over prescription drug prices dominated the lobbying agendas of some of the biggest spenders on K Street early this year, setting the legislative stage for the rest of 2019.
The tumult of the Trump administration and the uncertainty of divided party control on Capitol Hill have kept business interests on the defense while also looking for openings to help broker big-scope legislative deals before presidential politics takes hold by 2020.
“For all the talk of polarization and partisanship, there are things that can absolutely get done,” said Neil Bradley, executive vice president and chief policy officer at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which reported shelling out $22.1 million on federal lobbying during first three months of the year. “Trade, infrastructure, drug pricing and health care issues are not going to go away. … Now that Congress is up and running, we’re figuring out where we can find common ground and get things done.”
The Trump administration’s redo of the North American Free Trade Agreement has been a priority for the nation’s business community, including at the chamber, fueling work along the K Street corridor. Additionally, the administration’s tariffs have catapulted the issue to the forefront for some major sectors, such as agriculture.
“We certainly see trade and health care continuing to drive business,” said G. Hunter Bates, a co-leader of the lobbying practice at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, one of the city’s largest with revenue of $9.6 million in the first quarter of the year, according to lobbying disclosures filed this week with Congress. “Trade has been the above-the-fold headline issue throughout the Trump administration, and that will not change.”
Akin Gump disclosed lobbying on trade matters for such clients as food and agribusiness company Cargill Inc. and pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc., among others.
Also watch:5 ways Trump is reshaping environmental policy
Drug interests on alert
Pharmaceutical and health care interests also held spots among K Street’s top spenders during the first three months of the year. The drug industry lobby, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, disclosed spending nearly $10 million for the quarter on such issues as the NAFTA rewrite and measures related to prescription drug prices. The American Medical Association, which represents doctors, and the American Hospital Association were also among the top 10.
House Democrats and President Donald Trump, despite intense disagreements on numerous matters, have said they see potential for agreement on measures to reduce prescription drug prices and to boost improvements to the nation’s infrastructure.
Marc Lampkin, who runs the D.C. office of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, one of the city’s biggest lobbying practices with total revenue in the first quarter of $9.2 million, said his bipartisan team of lobbyists kept busy “helping companies and trade associations navigate the tumultuous landscape” of the nation’s capital.
The firm’s clients in the first quarter included Amgen, the National Collegiate Athletic Association and Johnson & Johnson, among others.
Health care and drug pricing legislation, measures aimed at fighting the opioid epidemic, and trade policy look set to remain major topics this year, Lampkin said, along with congressional oversight and the hope of an infrastructure deal.
“Congress often acts in a counterintuitive way,” said Lampkin, a former aide to Republican leaders on Capitol Hill, who suggested that although divided, Congress and the White House could come together on an infrastructure bill.
Tech industry players also continued to invest more in federal lobbying, with Amazon disclosing $3.9 million in the first quarter, an increase over what it spent in the first and last quarters of last year.
Facebook reported spending $3.4 million on federal lobbying in January, February and March, just a bit more than Google’s $3.36 million tab for the first quarter.
Both companies disclosed lobbying on privacy matters, something lawmakers have taken a keen interest in recently.
Akin Gump’s Bates, a former top aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, said he expects privacy will be a top issue on Capitol Hill heading into 2020. He noted that a sweeping California law setting out new data privacy rules and standards is set to take effect in January, adding pressure on Congress to come up with a nationwide privacy structure by then.
“Deadlines drive deals in Congress,” Bates said.