Comcast’s web of influence touches many corners of Washington

February 28

As Comcast pushes for approval of a $45 billion merger that would cement its dominance of the cable industry, the company stands to benefit from ties across Washington that it has built through contributions to think tanks, civil rights groups, and other organizations.

Comcast’s prolific charitable spending, together with top-level political connections, a roster of executives who have held key jobs in government, and one of the biggest lobbying operations in the city, have helped establish its status as one of the most influential companies in Washington.

The company’s reach across the capital also illustrates the many tools beyond traditional lobbying that corporations have at their disposal as they seek to influence policymakers.

“They’ve spread a lot of money around town to a lot of places, just for moments like this,” said Craig Aaron, president of Free Press, a consumer advocacy group that opposes the Time Warner Cable merger. At a minimum, Comcast could encourage the deal’s critics to sit out the debate, he said. “At best, they’ve got a whole network of people advocating for them.”

The Comcast Foundation gave out just over $16 million in grants in 2012, the most recent year for which tax documents are available.

“It’s an important corporate responsibility to participate in making the communities where we do business healthy and vibrant,” said David Cohen, the company’s government relations chief. Comcast officials said most of the foundation’s giving has little to do with Washington but reflects a long-term commitment to civil rights, education and leadership development.

That kind of corporate largesse proved useful the last time Comcast was trying to win regulatory approval for a major transaction.

As the Federal Communications Commission was weighing Comcast’s takeover of NBC Universal in 2010, members of Congress asked about its outreach to minorities. In a response submitted to the agency, attorneys for Comcast said the company and its foundation had given more than $1.8 billion in cash and in-kind support to community organizations over the previous nine years. And, they said, more than 200 of Comcast’s “community partners” had filed letters supporting the takeover, with most citing Comcast’s support of the communities it serves.

Many of the foundation’s grants are to small, local groups in the 39 states where Comcast does business. But others have a resonance in Washington. In 2012, for instance, it gave $385,000 to the National Council of La Raza, a major Hispanic civil rights group; $250,000 to the National Urban League; $50,000 to the Ford’s Theatre Society (the fourth installment of a five-year, $250,000 grant); and $5,000 to the Securities and Exchange Commission Historical Society.

The pending deal, announced Feb. 13, will be reviewed by the FCC and by antitrust officials at either the Justice Department or the Federal Trade Commission, and Comcast said it expects to win approval in nine to 12 months. The combined company would have 33 million cable subscribers and nearly as many broadband users, as well as content produced by NBC Universal, prompting worries that it will have huge power in determining what programs reach consumers.

Weeks before the deal was announced, billboards were plastered across Washington area Metro stations, drawing attention to Comcast’s efforts to bridge the digital divide by providing Internet access to low-income communities. And since November, the company has been sponsoring programming on the city’s main public radio station, WAMU (88.5 FM).

Contributions to think tanks are also part of the Washington strategy. They are intended to ensure that Comcast is “involved in the public policy discussions that affect the company,” said Sena Fitzmaurice, a spokesperson for the cable giant.

“Shoe leather lobbying gets you only so far,” said Michael Meehan, president of VennSquared Communications, who helps companies manage their Washington messages. “Then it’s think tanks that write white papers, and white papers are taken by shoe-leather lobbyists into the congressional offices.”

Comcast “has worked with most of the major think tanks in town who are interested in communications issues,” including the Aspen Institute, the Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute, Fitzmaurice said, declining to provide further details.

Comcast, its affiliates and employees have also been active political donors to both parties, giving $6.5 million in the 2012 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Cohen, a longtime Democratic insider who served as chief of staff to former Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell (D), is Comcast’s best known advocate in Washington. He attended the February White House state dinner for French President François Hollande just two days before the deal was announced.

“To effectively advocate for the company, you need to have a presence, you need to have relationships, and you need to participate in the fabric of what goes on in Washington,” Cohen said.

Cohen arrived at Comcast about the time of its takeover of AT&T Broadband, in 2002, and is credited with building a bigger Washington team as the company moved into new geographic areas and new lines of business.

In the decade since, Comcast’s Washington lobbying budget has skyrocketed, from $2.4 million in 2003 to $18.8 million in 2013, according to federal disclosure reports. It ranked 7th in a year-end tally of spending on federal lobbying by the Center for Responsive Politics, with most of the other top spots held by trade associations, including the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, which counts Comcast as a member. (Northrop Grumman, a top defense contractor, was the only individual company that spent more, at $20.6 million.)

Comcast counts nearly 100 lobbyists working at outside firms, including four former members of Congress and a lawyer who worked on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will hold a March 26 hearing on the consumer impact of the deal.

Lobbyists for Time Warner Cable, which last year reported more than $8 million in lobbying spending, are also working on the merger.

Cohen’s in-house hires include Melissa Maxfield, who was a top political aide to former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and now leads the company’s congressional lobbying team, and Meredith Attwell Baker, who, as an FCC commissioner, voted to approve the acquisition of NBC Universal, months before she moved to Comcast.

As Free Press’s Aaron put it, “In recent years, no one has been better at organizing an onslaught to push forward a deal that they want.”

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