If you’re looking to pick a fight with the National Association of Realtors, the group just may have a coded message into its recent lobbying disclosures: Watch out.
The realtors spent the second most of any lobbying group — $55 million — in 2014 when legislation to overhaul the nation’s housing finance system took on some momentum before fizzling out amid congressional gridlock.
In a year that was mixed for K Street, the realtors’ group stepped up its spending on federal lobbying to an unprecedented level, according to a tabulation from the Center for Responsive Politics. In 2012, previously the most it had spent, the realtors reported $41 million on K Street efforts.
"Our spending numbers include the money spent on state and local campaign activities and federal so those line items play a bigger role in our totals than issue based lobbying," Jenny Werwa, a spokeswoman for the association, wrote in a statement emailed to CQ Roll Call.
Only the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the reigning biggest spender for years, reported a bigger lobbying tab for last year: $124 million. (The chamber hit its record spending in 2010, during health care and financial overhaul efforts, with $157 million.)
Rounding out the other top 10 spenders on K Street for 2014 are Blue Cross and Blue Shield ($21 million), the American Hospital Association ($20.7 million), the American Medical Association ($19.7 million), National Association of Broadcasters ($18 million), Google Inc. ($17.5 million), National Cable & Telecommunications Association ($17.4 million), Comcast Corp. ($17 million) and The Boeing Co. ($16.8 million).
The U.S. chamber’s detailed and lengthy lobbying reports reflect the business community’s sometimes troubled legislative agenda in 2014. It put its resources into a fight against conservative Republicans who want to shut down the Export-Import Bank. It pushed for a renewal of the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act, which Congress failed to extend last year (and later rectified as one of the first orders of business this year).
Like the chamber on Ex-Im, the NAR fielded proposals from conservative Republicans that would not bode well for the housing sector by making it harder or more difficult for consumer to gets mortgages.
House Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, a champion of closing the Ex-Im Bank, pushed a bill through his committee in the last Congress that would have dramatically reshaped the mortgage market; which never made it to the House floor. The realtors' group was working with lawmakers on a bipartisan Senate housing bill that only made it as far as the Senate Banking Committee last year.
The rift between top K Street spenders and some Republican lawmakers may well continue this year. Hensarling said in a C-SPAN interview recently that moving a housing overhaul to take taxpayers off the hook for mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac would be at the top of his agenda for the committee — even if odds of passage remain slim.
Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio addressed the tension between the tea party-backed conservative faction of the GOP and those who, like him, are more pro-business. Boehner, in a "60 Minutes" interview Sunday, said the issues with the tea party aren’t over strategy or competing visions but “disagreement over tactics from time to time. Frankly, a lot is being driven by national groups here in Washington who’s raised money and just beating the dickens out of me.”
But a spokesman for one such group said it’s obvious that business organizations aren’t hurting for cash — or even influence.
“These policies reek of political favoritism,” said Dan Holler, spokesman for Heritage Action for America, which last year reported spending less than $400,000 on federal lobbying. Heritage opposes business interests on Ex-Im Bank and a housing overhaul that would put taxpayers at risk of bailing out mortgage enterprises, among other issues.
“While these groups are having an increasingly difficult time pushing their agenda across the finish line, they are frequently able to block conservative reforms they believe would cut off their gravy train,” Holler added.
With Ex-Im coming up on another expiration date midyear and with housing policy perhaps getting a serious look, it's an open question just how much business interests will spend on K Street in 2015. We'll be watching.
The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress
Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.