Lobbying revenue up at top firms, even as some big clients dip

Democrats’ spending and tax proposals spark flurry of K Street activity

Even before former Facebook employee Frances Haugen said at an Oct. 5 Senate hearing that the social media giant put profits ahead of safety, the company had spent $14.7 million through Sept. 30 to lobby Congress this year, new data shows. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Even before former Facebook employee Frances Haugen said at an Oct. 5 Senate hearing that the social media giant put profits ahead of safety, the company had spent $14.7 million through Sept. 30 to lobby Congress this year, new data shows. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted October 21, 2021 at 4:54pm

Many of K Street’s best known and biggest firms reported an uptick in lobbying revenue this year as Democrats controlling Congress and the White House crafted multitrillion-dollar spending, tax and infrastructure measures. Lobbyists say they expect business to remain strong through the end of this year as Democrats try to get those bills over the finish line while also passing annual spending bills that could contain policy “riders” in a narrowly divided Congress.

The gains at K Street shops came even as some of the nation’s top spenders on lobbying, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Realtors, lowered their outlays compared with the same period last year, according to a CQ Roll Call analysis of recently filed disclosures. 

The 10 biggest spenders this year shelled out about $200 million through Sept. 30, down from about $230 million in the same period last year. Third-quarter reports were due Wednesday.

Facebook reported a slight decline in spending to $14.7 million versus $15 million for the same period in 2020. The social media giant faced pressure from critics on both sides of the aisle about allegations of censorship or spreading disinformation even before a whistleblower testified earlier this month that internal documents showed the company knew of possible harm caused by its products. Any uptick in Facebook’s spending this month will be publicly disclosed in January. 

Other big spenders showed significant increases this year. The Business Roundtable, which ranked ahead of Facebook in fourth place overall, shelled out $20.7 million so far this year, a 78 percent increase over the same period in 2020. The roundtable, which represents CEOs, reported spending more than half of this year’s total — $11.8 million — during the third quarter from July through September.

That was when Democrats began wrangling in earnest over the fine print of what they’re calling the Build Back Better plan that they hope to pass through reconciliation, a process that could bypass filibuster rules in the Senate. Along with a significant expansion of social safety net programs and policies to address climate change, the package includes a tax overhaul affecting both individuals and corporations. Business Roundtable CEO Joshua Bolten, who was chief of staff in the George W. Bush White House, said in September that the group was “deeply concerned” by the revenue aspects of the reconciliation package. 

“These measures would put millions of American jobs at risk, stunt wage growth, suppress business investment and innovation and once again make American companies more susceptible to foreign takeovers,” he said in a statement.

Outside help

The Business Roundtable farmed out some of its lobbying to outside firms, including to Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, one of the top-grossing K Street firms. 

Akin Gump pulled in $39.9 million in lobbying fees during the first three quarters of the year, according to lobbying disclosures filed with Congress, up from the same period last year when it reported $37.2 million.  

The firm’s Brian Pomper said the dominant issues during the third quarter and continuing today are the reconciliation package and an infrastructure bill that passed the Senate with bipartisan support but has been held up in the House by progressives who have successfully tied the fates of the two bills together.  

“Given the breadth and scope of these issues, and the fact that they impact so many segments and sectors of our economy, I expect the business community will remain very focused on what is going on in Washington, and we can expect high levels of activity to remain throughout the end of the year,” he said in a statement from the firm. 

Pomper also noted the gradual return to in-person lobbying as a bright spot for the lobbying business in recent months. 

‘Feeding frenzy’ 

Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck has also seen an uptick in recent lobbying revenue, hauling in $40.3 million so far during the first three quarters of 2021, the most among lobbying firms. 

Marc Lampkin, the managing partner of the firm’s Washington office, said clients were especially concerned over potential revenue raisers, including tax increases, to help pay for Democrats’ reconciliation package, which may include new federal investments in child care, elder care, education and environmental policies. 

“There is a huge amount of interest in what the pay-fors will be,” Lampkin said.    

Clients are also looking for opportunities, he said, with companies in “green technology” seeking legislative text that could spur investments in their sector, for example. 

“It creates this really intense period around historic spending in Washington and programmatic changes,” Lampkin said. “Our model of being bipartisan and bicameral with access for all the key players in Washington is the model for success.” 

He added that end-of-year deals on spending, the debt limit and other matters are likely to provide opportunities for K Street to attach policy riders to must-pass legislation.

“Those are vehicles that can carry things, riders, so there’s always a feeding frenzy around that,” he said. 

Some of the smaller and mid-size firms also reported revenue growth this year over 2020. 

Forbes Tate Partners disclosed $18.6 million in federal lobbying revenue in the first three quarters of the year, up from $14.4 million during the same period last year. 

“There’s a lot of motion, and there’s a lot of potential for things to happen — good and bad,” the firm’s Jeff Forbes said. 

Forbes, a Democrat, said the tension and negotiations among lawmakers of his own party were par for the course. 

“We’re a big-tent party, and you’re seeing the big tent play out,” he said.  

But he noted that he thought Democrats would come to regret not bringing up the bipartisan infrastructure bill in the House for a vote sooner, though he predicts it will pass the chamber eventually.  

“I do think it will pass in the House, and I do think reconciliation will pass both chambers,” he said. 

Forbes said his firm has expanded into areas beyond lobbying, including polling and digital and traditional communications and is eyeing more work into state capitals. 

“We’ve been growing at a great clip, and we hope we can continue to do it,” he said.