Here’s what Amazon lobbies for in D.C.

August 6, 2013

By now, everyone's heard that Jeff Bezos has bought The Washington Post. This is the same Jeff Bezos, of course, who also founded and runs Amazon, a sprawling company that has plenty of policy interests in D.C., as well as a multi-million-dollar lobbying operation.


(Bloomberg)

Now, Amazon won't own The Post. Bezos will. And, in his letter to employees, Bezos appeared to address any potential conflict of interest head-on: "The values of The Post do not need changing," he wrote. "The paper’s duty will remain to its readers and not to the private interests of its owners."

Still, we thought it would be worth taking another look at all the policy issues Amazon.com has taken a keen interest in over the years — what the company has been pushing for and why. Here's an overview:

-- The lobbying shop. Amazon has grown steadily more comfortable with throwing its weight around Capitol Hill over the years. Back during the 2003-04 session, the company spent $1.8 million on lobbying. In 2011-2012, Amazon spent more than twice as much — $4.7 million, all told. You can see the steady growth in this chart from OpenSecrets.org:

That $4.7 million in the last congressional session is still far less than, say, Google, which spent a whopping $29 million over those two years. But when a fight over online sales taxes started burbling up in 2011, Amazon managed to amass a significant Hill presence in short order, working with key lobbying firms like Patton Boggs and Covington & Burling.

According to data tallied by the Sunlight Foundation, Amazon has now bent lawmakers' ears on all sorts of topics: There's big stuff like taxes and telecom regulations and copyright law, but also smaller issues like consumer safety and law enforcement.

-- Amazon's sales tax battles. When it comes to policy, Amazon is perhaps most famous for its long, bitter fights with the states over Internet sales taxes. For years, online retailers weren't required to collect sales taxes due on items sold in states in which they didn't have a physical presence. Brick-and-mortar stores complained that this gave online retailers like Amazon a key financial edge.

And, for years, Amazon fought hard against state efforts to collect those taxes. When Texas announced in 2011 that it would try to collect back taxes from the firm, Amazon said it would leave the state. When Illinois tried to push Amazon to collect taxes by arguing that the company had thousands of affiliates inside the state, Amazon severed its ties with those affiliates. In California, Amazon pushed a ballot initiative to overturn a sales-tax law passed by the legislature.

Those tax brawls may be coming to a close, however. This year, Amazon has backed a bill in Congress to require large online retailers to collect sales taxes on all purchases, in all states. Why the switch? The company said it prefers a national approach to patchwork state rules. But Amazon has also been moving to same-day shipping and is setting up physical warehouses in nearly every state — so, increasingly, it’s already required to collect sales tax under existing rules anyway.

-- Corporate tax reform. In July of this year, Amazon hired Capitol Tax Partners to lobby on tax-reform issues in Congress. The point person would be Jonathan Talisman, a former Senate finance staffer and a Treasury Department official in the Clinton administration. "Amazon and other technology companies," the Hill explained, "have urged Congress to cut the tax rate for income that they bring back to the United States."


Gus Ruelas/Reuters - Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos walks off after unveiling the Kindle Paperwhite, Kindle Fire HD 8.9" and 7" during Amazon's Kindle Fire event in Santa Monica, Calif. in this Sept. 6, 2012 file photograph.

-- Keeping an eye on antitrust lawsuits. Amazon dominates the market for books and e-books in the United States, thanks to its willingness to price cheaply and bolster its market share. That topic hasn't come up in Congress, but it is intertwined with all sorts of other policy and legal issues.

Case in point: In July, the Justice Department won a lawsuit against Apple, accusing the company of conspiring with publishers to raise e-book prices. Amazon wasn't a defendant in that case, but it certainly had an interest in the outcome — and the federal judge who ruled against Apple noted that the publishers involved had agreed to the scheme out of “fear and frustration” over Amazon.com’s control over e-book pricing.

-- The Internet Association. Amazon isn't just a retailer. It's also a tech giant. And the company underscored that fact when it linked arms with Silicon Valley mainstays like Facebook, Google, and Yahoo! in 2012 to form The Internet Association, which my colleagues described as a major push "to counter efforts by federal regulators to strap new rules to their industry."

The Internet Association was formed after a widely publicized legislative fight in 2011 against anti-piracy legislation (the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA). That measure failed, thanks to a large public backlash and hasty opposition from companies like Google and Amazon, but the brawl still convinced the big tech companies that they needed to ramp up their presence on Capitol Hill. The new group has staked out positions on everything from cyber-security to copyright and patent law to high-skilled immigration.

And the Internet Association is starting to flex its muscles. In April, the tech group was seen "fighting back against a draft federal proposal that would make it easier for police to intercept online communications as they occur." In July, it railed against "[a] proposed change to U.S. law that would allow state attorneys general to hold websites liable for content posted by users."

-- Federal contracting. In addition to its work on the Hill, Amazon has also moved into the lucrative world of defense contracting. According to Quartz, Amazon recently landed a $600 million contract to build private cloud-computing services for the CIA. The company has been staffing up of late to build out this new endeavor, posting want ads for engineers who have top-secret security clearances.


(Scott Sady/Associated Press)

-- Amazon's workplace and labor issues. The New York Times recently reported that Amazon has been clashing with labor unions in Germany over wages. "The subtext," the paper reported, "is Amazon’s opposition to unions in its warehouses as a general principle, because the company fears unions will slow down the kind of behind-the-scenes innovation that has propelled its growth."

That's not the Times's editorializing. That was the explicit view of Dave Clark, Amazon's vice president of worldwide operations and customer services, who explained to the newspaper that "Amazon views unions as intermediaries that will want to have a say on everything from employee scheduling to changes in processes for handling and packaging orders. Amazon prizes its ability to quickly introduce changes like these into its warehouses to improve the experience of its customers."

So far, Amazon hasn't loudly clashed with unions in the United States. None of its 90,000 workers are unionized. But the company has come under heavy scrutiny in recent years for labor practices at its warehouses. A widely read report in the The Morning Call two years ago documented poor conditions at the company's Pennsylvania facilities, including heat-stressed workers. (The company says it has since installed air conditioning.)

-- Amazon's interested in all sorts of smaller issues, too. You can see a list of bills in Congress that Amazon has taken a particular interest in here. The company has been heavily involved in legislation over online sales taxes (the "Main Street Fairness Act"), but it's also been active on bills dealing with credit-card swipe fees, as well as the Organized Retail Crime Act of 2009, which would have made organized retail theft a federal crime.

-- Political donations. There's more than lobbying. Amazon also operates a political action committee that gave $222,796 in the last election cycle. That was split pretty evenly between Democrats ($93,000) and Republicans ($86,500). This is small-bore stuff compared to long-established companies like General Electric or ExxonMobil, but Amazon's reach is slowly growing.

Now, Amazon the company is different from Bezos himself. As David Graham outlines here, Bezos has made his own donations over the years, largely to Democrats like Washington's two senators, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell. He and his wife also donated $2.5 million to support a referendum on gay marriage last year in the state and opposed an effort to raise taxes in Washington on those making over $200,000 per year.

Perhaps none of this will matter all that much for The Washington Post itself. It's impossible to say at this point. But it's worth being aware of all the same.

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