BY SEAN MCMINN and KATE ACKLEY
With a unified Republican government in Washington, lobbyists hoped that 2017 would offer a long-awaited opportunity to push big proposals through Congress — but records do not indicate any large uptick in clients during the early months of the Trump administration.
Unlike the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency, lobbying registrations made available by the secretary of the Senate show almost no change from previous years in the number of clients lobbyists started working with early this year.
Lobbyists and organizations that employ them filed 1,578 disclosure forms to indicate new client relationships beginning between January and April of this year. That’s only slightly higher than the number of clients in the same time period in 2015 — after the 2014 midterm elections — and 2013 — after Obama’s re-election victory. In both those years, the president’s party did not have a majority in both chambers of Congress.
The last time one party controlled both chambers of Congress and the White House, the number of new clients was noticeably higher. Lobbyists took on 3,433 clients in 2009 in the months after Obama won his first presidential election — more than double the amount after President Donald Trump won.
Obama took the oath of office with an ambitious agenda that included an overhaul of the health care system and new climate change policies. Along with congressional Democrats, he also pushed immediately for an economic recovery measure and a revamped financial services regulatory framework in response to the economic crisis.
Those regulatory expansions attracted huge lobbying from across many industries, especially the health care sector. On top of that, lawmakers still directed funds to pet projects through earmarks back in 2009, and such pots of money were then the backbone of K Street business. Congress imposed a ban on earmarks in 2011.
“The beginning of the Obama administration in 2009 was a rare time — it was the perfect storm,” said Rich Gold, who runs the lobbying practice at Holland & Knight. “If you were ever going to go to Washington, that’s when you went.”
‘Still somewhat waiting’
Lobbyists were bullish on their prospects this year for a repeal of the 2010 health care law and a comprehensive tax overhaul under unified GOP control of the federal government, but some potential clients took a more cautious approach to the political upheaval in Washington. Business clients also weren’t concerned about new regulations, but some were eager to get rid of old ones as the Trump administration pledged to roll back many of the Obama-era rules.
“People were sort of waiting to see how things went and whether to invest, and I think they’re still somewhat waiting,” Gold said.
Timothy LaPira, a political science professor at James Madison University who studies lobbying, said K Street may still see a surge in new clients this year, if lawmakers gather momentum for a major tax bill.
“If tax reform gets moving and rolling like it did in 1986, then absolutely, K Street is going to see a boom time,” he said.
A midyear surge in lobbying clients is less common than the frequent spikes in the first quarter of a year when corporations and associations typically make changes to their outside lobbying lineup, especially at the start of a new Congress and administration when they want to make sure they hire people connected to those in power.
The filings for new clients are mandated by law and reveal not only how many lobbyists are being recruited to influence legislation, but also what issues they plan to work on.
The most filings this year came on health issues, followed by taxes and government spending.
The White House has made attempts to radically change policies in all three of these areas, though none have yet materialized into law.
On health care, which saw 302 client registrations between January and April, a lack of intraparty support for the GOP’s health care bill caused Trump to briefly concede that Republicans would not be able to repeal and replace Obama’s signature health care law before it “explodes.” About a month later, the House pieced together enough votes to pass an amended version of that bill, though senators have indicated they are unlikely to follow and will write their own bill.
During health care negotiations, Trump released an outline of his plan to reduce taxes by making changes to the tax code for individuals and businesses. Between January and April, lobbyists registered 284 new clients on taxes and the IRS.
During the same time period, 247 clients began their lobbying work on the federal budget; Trump issued his first full fiscal year proposal on May 23. Cuts in the president’s budget angered Democrats on Capitol Hill and left Republicans demurring on whether they’d support cuts for programs benefiting their constituents, such as Medicaid, food stamps and Social Security disability insurance.
In the months after Obama won the presidency, budget and appropriations dominated lobbyist registrations. In January 2009 alone, there were 373 filings on this topic submitted to Congress.
Energy and defense were also popular topics in both 2009 and 2017.