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COVID-19 legislation, postelection prep keep K Street busy

Chamber, Realtors, Facebook, Amazon spending up compared to 2019

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce continues to be the top spender on lobbying for the year, new disclosures show.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce continues to be the top spender on lobbying for the year, new disclosures show. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Corrected, 6:25 p.m. | Negotiations over the federal response to the COVID-19 crisis have fueled the lobbying sector this year, as K Street firms and corporate representatives now turn their attention to the coming tumult after the November elections. 

Some of the nation’s biggest spenders on federal lobbying — including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Realtors and tech giants Facebook and Amazon — reported shelling out more money on influence campaigns so far this year than they did during the first three quarters of 2019, according to new disclosures filed this week. And the biggest lobbying firms, such as Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, also reported increasing revenue this year.

The pharmaceutical industry’s main lobbying group, though, disclosed a decline in spending when compared with the same period last year; ditto for the American Hospital Association and the American Medical Association, though they still remained among the biggest spenders on federal lobbying. 

The Chamber, the nation’s biggest business group representing a cross section of industries, is still the top spender for the year to date, even as it dealt with layoffs and division over its political endorsements. The National Association of Realtors, however, spent more than the Chamber and its affiliates from July through September, the period covered by the latest disclosures. The Realtors’ total for the quarter was $33 million, compared with $22.3 million for the Chamber.   

“Moving into 2021, we look forward to highlighting the housing affordability and accessibility issues that still plague our nation while we push to advance fair housing, diversity and inclusion throughout our industry,” Realtors spokesman Wesley Shaw said.  

Big business organizations have struggled in recent years as the traditionally friendly GOP shifted toward the populism of the tea party movement and President Donald Trump, who is a skeptic of free trade deals. 

Lobbyist Sam Geduldig said that some of the top-spending business groups, specifically the Chamber and the Business Roundtable, have strained relationships even with the previously corporate-friendly Republican Party — and that could provide business opportunities for well-connected lobbying firms. Geduldig is part of the all-Republican CGCN Group and is also a partner in United By Interest, a Black-owned, bipartisan firm that seeks to find common ground between the parties. 

There was reportedly pushback, for example, after the Chamber endorsed some two dozen Democratic freshmen in competitive House races this year.

“I am very optimistic about firms like ours who can operate outside the traditional playbook because it hasn’t worked for a while and it’s definitely not going to work going forward,” Geduldig said.

The Chamber’s executive vice president and chief policy officer, Neil Bradley, is a former GOP leadership aide on Capitol Hill. He said his group’s mission was more critical than ever. 

“Our role is different than the parties, and we are not a partisan organization,” Bradley said in a statement. “The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s role is to advance the business community’s policy priorities and our membership.”

Business Roundtable spokeswoman Jessica Boulanger said the group will work with members of both parties “to ensure the safest and strongest recovery possible.

“Business Roundtable is also focused on addressing the systemic inequities that Black Americans as well as other people of color face, recently calling on Congress to pass bipartisan policing reform,” she said.

The business of lobbying

Even as the coronavirus pandemic has crippled segments of the U.S. economy, some of K Street’s biggest lobbying practices have posted increases in their revenue. 

The biggest shop these days is Brownstein Hyatt, which reported lobbying income of $36.5 million so far in 2020 compared with $29.2 million for the same period last year. 

“Plain and simple, I think we were in the best position to be responsive to our clients on the needs around the COVID crisis and the heightened focus and attention on Washington in seeking solutions to the economic crisis,” said Marc Lampkin, a Republican lobbyist and managing partner of Brownstein’s Washington office. 

As Congress and the Trump administration continue to haggle over another round of economic relief, Lampkin said clients remain deeply engaged even as they are shifting their attention to a postelection lame-duck session and, more consequentially, next year. 

If there’s a change at the White House, clients evaluate whether they have sufficient reach into the incoming administration or whether they have enough connections to Senate Democrats, should their party win control of the chamber.  

“We are preparing ourselves to be ready for whatever the new government looks like in January,” added Lampkin, whose firm’s clients include FedEx Corp. and the U.S. Travel Association.

Postelection ‘UFOs’

Whether it’s a second term for Trump or the first term of a Biden administration and a Democratic Senate or one still controlled by the GOP, business interests will be on high alert for a robust agenda in the new Congress. 

Karishma Shah Page, a member of the lobbying practice at K&L Gates, said the firm’s workload exceeded what it had expected for an election year because of the COVID-19 crisis. The practice’s lobbying revenue was $14.3 million for the first three quarters of the year, up from $13.3 million in the same span of 2019. In addition to coronavirus relief bills, Page and her colleagues also worked on an annual defense authorization, appropriations and trade policy.  

Now, it’s on to November. 

“Of course, we are actively helping clients with election-related political planning,” Page said. 

Part of that includes assessing how the personnel shifts on Capitol Hill and in the executive branch will affect policy agendas. The lineup on committees is sure to change, and lobbyists will have a fresh crop of incoming lawmakers to get to know, virtually at first. 

“We’re taking into account that there are several scenarios that could play out … and what does that mean in terms of defending the policy direction and really helping our clients navigate that,” Page added, noting there could be uncertainty in the immediate aftermath with possible delays in counting ballots or, really, anything.

It is 2020, after all.  

“There’s the asterisk, the UFO, or unforeseen occurrence,” she said.

Correction: The graphic in this report has been revised to show the No. 2 spender was the National Association of Realtors.

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