April marked a spike in activity on K Street, with corporations, trade groups and other entities tapping outside lobbyists at a rate not seen since mid-2011.
Last month saw 686 new lobbying registrations — reports that lobbyists must file with the Senate when they contact members of Congress on behalf of a new client. The last time the volume of new lobbying registrations even came close to that number was in April 2011, when lobbying firms registered 685 new clients.
Registrations don’t equal lobbying dollars right away, nor do they always represent new business — lobbyists file them, for example, when they switch firms and take clients with them. Still, registrations generally indicate fees are likely to follow. And the recent flurry of activity may signal that the $3 billion lobbying industry, whose heavy-hitters are coming out of two years of decline, is picking up steam.
Some say it’s a collective response to signs that Congress — after two years of distractions such as the debt ceiling and fiscal cliff debates, on top of a presidential election — may finally be returning to a normal rhythm of lawmaking.
“Between the spring and the [fiscal] cliff at end of last year, there was a bit of a ‘no man’s land’ where nothing was really happening,” said Ilisa Halpern Paul, a health care lobbyist who leads the government relations group at Drinker Biddle & Reath. “Everyone was home running for re-election or retiring. It was as if Congress hit the pause button. When they did come back, it was all on [fiscal] cliff stuff.”
Now, with the 113th Congress stocked with first-time representatives, the time is ripe for advocacy groups and companies to establish relationships with new members of Congress and get their interests back onto the legislative agenda, Paul said.
The American Foundation for the Blind, a New York-based nonprofit, recently hired Paul’s firm to urge lawmakers to take action on making insulin pumps and glucose monitors more user-friendly for people with diabetes-related vision loss.
The foundation, which advocates for equal access for people with vision loss, had mostly done advocacy work in-house, said Paul Schroeder, the nonprofit’s vice president of programs and policy.
“We’ve been getting nowhere on this issue and decided to enlist [Drinker Biddle] as someone we thought could help either with the [Food and Drug Administration] or encourage the Hill to do something,” Schroeder said. “We had an opportunity to move this forward.”
Schroeder’s group was one of 1,440 entities to lobby Congress and federal agencies on health issues during the first three months of the year. In that period, health-related initiatives made up the third most-lobbied-on issue after the 2014 budget and appropriations process (2,644) and taxes (1,509), according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
All that translates into good news for K Street. Some lobbyists predicted the industry would rebound this year, even after many top firms reported declines in lobbying revenue during the first three months of the year. They pointed to a lag time of up to several weeks between when a firm gets hired, when they register (after they contact a representative on Capitol Hill on behalf of the client), and when they report fees from those clients (after the end of each quarter).
“Things got bottled up last year with everyone waiting to see what would happen with the fiscal cliff, so the normal fourth quarter hiring after a presidential election, which is usually robust, got pushed back to the first quarter of 2013,” said Rich Gold, who chairs the lobbying group at Holland & Knight. “So we’re seeing that kick in now.”
Congress has already taken action more quickly and decisively than expected on issues that affect a wide swath of industries, which is prompting some business interests to amp up efforts to influence the decision-making process.
“There are a lot of things that have real legs that even a couple months ago, wise folks would’ve said, ‘I don’t see how that could happen this year,’” said Bob Jones, head of the lobbying practice at Alston & Bird, noting the cybersecurity bill that cleared the House in April and immigration legislation that both chambers are working on. “I don’t think people would’ve thought [cyber] would come out as strong as it did in the House. And immigration was talked about as piecemeal, not a comprehensive package. Now it looks like it’s going to be comprehensive ... If you look at the top items that are discussed by the president and House and Senate leaders, you have immigration, cyber, taxes, the budget ... that hits everyone.”
More than 1,500 entities lobbied on taxes during the first three months of 2013 alone, including some of K Street’s perennial top spenders: the U.S Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Realtors, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Northrop Grumman and General Electric, according to data analyzed by the Center for Responsive Politics.
“Taxes are one of those things that everyone gets is a long-term issue, and you have to be at the table or you’re off the menu,” said Gold, of Holland & Knight.
Gold says he is doubtful Congress will pass tax reform this year, but expects more “modest, incremental” energy and transportation legislation — like the bipartisan Shaheen-Portman Energy Savings and Industrial Competitiveness Act, and a rail and freight measure percolating in the Senate Commerce Committee — to gain traction.
“There’s reason for optimism,” he said. “We may not get many grand big pieces of legislation through, other than immigration and maybe something on the budget. But things seem to be clearing out a little bit, there’s a willingness to work on smaller tier-two issues.”