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Covid Dented Lobbying by Business Groups Ravaged by Pandemic

The virus has forced government affairs professionals to replace in-person meetings with cheaper forms of lobbying.

(Bloomberg) -- Chalk up another victim of the 2020 pandemic: big business groups that fuel Washington’s influence industry.

As the coronavirus forced lockdowns and slammed the economy, some trade groups took a hit to their annual dues and canceled plans for revenue-generating conferences. As a result, some of Washington’s biggest and most powerful trade associations spent less on lobbying in 2020 than in 2019, year-end disclosures show.

The list of groups that posted declines includes many whose members were hardest hit by the pandemic: the Business Roundtable, American Hotel & Lodging Association, Cruise Lines International Association, National Retail Federation, National Restaurant Association and the National Federation of Independent Business.

The Business Roundtable spent nearly $17 million, down from almost $20 million in 2019. The National Association of Manufacturers spent about $9 million, less than two-thirds of what it laid out in 2019 to influence Washington, the figures show.

“We’ve all been wrapped up in this pandemic and that really has changed the nature of lobbying,” said Craig Holman, a lobbyist at the government watchdog group, Public Citizen. “I’m looking forward to when we get rid of this pandemic so we can go back to the old style of lobbying.”

The virus has forced government affairs professionals to replace in-person meetings with cheaper forms of lobbying, such as Zoom sessions with congressional staffers and letter-writing campaigns.

Advocacy organizations continue to ask constituents to make phone calls and send emails. But asking them to show up at lawmakers’ town hall meetings and flying them into Washington for strategy sessions or in-person visits are off limits. “We can’t do any of the big, expensive ticket stuff,” said Holman.

Several of the groups that reduced their lobbying activities still spent 2020 scrambling to win virus relief measures for their members. They had to do more with less money as they advocated for multiple rounds of stimulus from Congress.

The National Retail Federation spent $6.2 million, down from $7.7 million in 2019. The restaurant association spent about $2.6 million, down from $2.9 million, while the NFIB, which represents small businesses, spent $3.3 million, down from $4.7 million.

There were some outliers to the downward trend. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, one of Washington’s most powerful business groups, spent more than $70 million last year, up from $58 million in 2019. One reason for the jump, a spokesman said, is that midway through 2020 the chamber absorbed the Institute for Legal Reform, a unit that had previously lobbied and reported separately.

Airlines for America, which represents another hard-hit industry, increased its lobbying expenditures nearly 25%, to $6.3 million.

Some prominent law firms with lobbying arms and boutique lobbying shops also saw their receipts climb. Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, the top firm by lobbying revenue, took in almost $50 million in lobbying fees in 2020, $7 million more than the year before. Lyft Inc., Chinese telecommunications firm ZTE Corp. and the National Association of Theatre Owners are among its clients.

Technology companies such as Amazon.com Inc., which became even more crucial to everyday life in the pandemic, continued to dominate lobbying spending by single firms.

The online retailer, which benefited as customers avoided in-person shopping, spent $4.7 million, a company record, on lobbying in the fourth quarter after setting a record in the third quarter. The company laid out almost $17.9 million for lobbying in 2020.

Still, Facebook Inc. outspent Amazon for the year, laying out nearly $19.7 million, up from $16.7 million in 2019. Alphabet Inc.’s Google, which has been trimming spending under new Washington leadership, spent $7.5 million last year, down from $11.8 million in 2019. Apple Inc. spent nearly $6.7 million in the same period, down more than 10% from a year earlier.

Tech companies, especially Facebook and Google, faced an onslaught of Washington threats in 2020. Federal antitrust enforcers sued both companies. A House committee called for changes in antitrust law that could make it harder for the tech giants to grow and make acquisitions. The panel issued a stinging report following a 16-month investigation, which included testimony from the heads of Apple, Amazon, Alphabet and Facebook.

Oracle Corp., which spent years pushing a case against Google, disclosed spending about $8.1 million for lobbying in 2020, up from about $6.8 million in 2019.

ByteDance Ltd., the Chinese owner of TikTok, the popular video app, also saw a big jump in its influence spending. It reported $2.6 million for 2020 lobbying, compared with $270,000 in 2019. Trump had sought to force the sale of TikTok, but that didn’t happen before his term ended.

In the first quarter of 2021, the pandemic again will compete for lawmakers’ attention, along with impeachment proceedings of former President Trump. This could once again reduce the chances that lobbyists can entice lawmakers to focus on their clients’ issues.

“I’ve had a very difficult time trying to get some of my ethics issues considered by Congress,” said Public Citizen’s Holman, who said his efforts included a measure to make it easier to track lawmakers’ stock market trades. “I suspect that trade associations and business groups are also having a very difficult time trying to get Congress to address some of their cherished issues,” Holman said.

The lobbying business is also undergoing a shift now that President Joe Biden has taken over the Executive Branch and Senate control has switched to the Democrats.

On K Street, planning for the change in power began as early as last summer and accelerated as Biden’s polling lead remained strong through October. Lobby firms began tracking new priorities such as corporate tax increases, building databases on potential appointees and seeking new staff and clients.

Ballard Partners, which set up a flourishing lobbying business in Washington thanks to its founder’s fundraising for Trump, ended relationships with 14 clients in the fourth quarter, including Uber Technologies Inc., the filings showed. The group, however, registered many new clients and discloses more than 100 overall.

Ricchetti Inc., the firm founded by incoming Biden counselor Steve Ricchetti with his brother Jeff, has brought on five new clients in the fourth quarter, including Amazon.com Inc., according to the records.

Biden has already put into place limits on lobbying by his top administration officials when they leave. In the final hours of his presidency, Trump revoked his administration’s own lobbying pledges, which banned political appointees from lobbying their old agencies for five years after leaving the government.

The reports, which registered lobbyists must file quarterly with Congress, reveal what issues they focused on and how much money they received, but they don’t include which specific officials they reached out to and which issues were their top priorities. Lobbyists representing foreign governments or political parties file separate disclosures.

--With assistance from Megan Wilson.

© 2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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