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Coalitions of the willing are latest lobbying trend

Demonstrators protest against the legislation to give President Barack Obama fast-track authority to advance trade deals. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB Getty Images

A powerful coalition of labor and environmental groups known as the Coalition to Stop Fast Track was one of the most influential players in bringing down fast-track trade legislation last week.

Its creation, and clout, highlight how many of Washington’s biggest legislative and regulatory battles are now fought — via coalitions of the like-minded, at least on issues of convenience. These coalitions also serve as lucrative vehicles for K Street to do business.

The single-minded groups are popping up on all manner of issues, including to lobby on rules regulating commercial drones that weigh less than 55 pounds, to rewrite the nation’s patent laws and to engage in the big legislative fight over the Export-Import Bank.

Coalitions offer lobbyists a big advantage by allowing firms to collect combined fees from a number of corporations and interest groups that may not otherwise engage on an issue. For instance, a company may not consider an issue pressing enough on which to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, but the idea of spending a few thousand dollars — that’s then combined with similarly smaller fees from other coalition members — is more enticing.

Late last year, for instance, months before the battle over the trade bill erupted, leaders from labor unions and environmental groups met with Karin Johanson, a veteran political strategist who is credited with helping orchestrate the Democrats’ 2006 House takeover.

The groups, including the AFL-CIO and the Sierra Club, were looking for a way to better track and coordinate the litany of grassroots, lobbying and advertising efforts they were pushing to stop fast-track trade legislation, which would give President Barack Obama broader authority to negotiate international deals.

Following the meeting, the groups hired Johanson to lead the Coalition to Stop Fast Track. And its joint strategy was a resounding success.

“Having a coalition means you can across the board say, ‘This week or this month, this is what we’re doing, this is what people are communicating with officials about in the field,'” said Johanson, a former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee executive director who represented a number of coalition clients when she was at the advocacy firm Dewey Square Group.

“Otherwise it’d be each group doing its own thing and you’d be crossing your fingers it was the same message.”

Lobbying coalitions are not new, nor are they always effective. More than 1,000 have filed lobbying papers to tackle issues ranging from the wonky to the wacky, and many are short-lived — including one created in 1999 to lobby on Y2K-related tax issues.

But coalitions have gained traction over the last few years as more lobby and government affairs firms embrace the strategy as a way to garner more widespread support for a client’s position than a single corporation or interest group could generate on its own.

“There is probably more coalition activity now than there has been historically,” Akin Gump lobbyist Joel Jankowsky said. “But the firm doesn’t have a goal of representing coalitions. The goal is to represent our clients. Sometimes…the best vehicle through which we can advance our client’s interests is a coalition, so we’ll work to form one.”

Coalitions are also being formed to target the work of regulators.

Take the current push to shape Federal Aviation Administration rules on the use of small commercial drones. The Small UAV Coalition is expanding quickly – its membership has grown five-fold from four to 20 in less than a year – and is on pace to spend more lobbying dollars this year than last. In 2014, the group paid its lobbyists at Akin Gump $220,000; this year, it has spent $180,000 in the first quarter alone.

“UAV manufacturers, hardware and software providers, insurers, technical experts and accessory providers have seen the benefit of forming strong coalitions that can bring a voice to their industry,” said Akin Gump lobbyist Michael Drobac, the executive director of the coalition, which includes Amazon Prime Air, GoPro and GoogleX.

Coalitions are less permanent and more focused than trade groups, usually zeroing in on specific legislative measures or agencies as opposed to maintaining memberships, organizing public education campaigns and serving other functions performed by many wide-reaching trade associations.

“Over the last 18 months, there’s definitely been an uptick [in coalition work],” said Rich Gold, who leads the lobbying practice at Holland & Knight.

The firm is running campaigns for about 30 coalitions and ad-hoc associations, including the recently-signed Biosimilars Forum, a collection of pharmaceutical groups, and the Alliance to Restore Our Waterways, an environmental group.

“The uptick for us over the last six months has been the success of the sunscreen effort and the way we ran that soup-to-nuts,” he said.

Last year, the firm scored a win for the Public Access to Sunscreens (PASS) Coalition, which prompted Congress to pass a law mandating that the Federal Drug Administration try to reduce its backlog of applications for new sunscreen ingredients.

The coalition began with one company, chemical manufacturer Ashland, which Holland had long represented on general legislative matters. Ashland urged the FDA for years to approve newer sunscreen ingredients that many dermatologists and cancer researchers say are more effective in blocking harmful UV rays, but the agency’s backlog of applications delayed the process.

The firm helped recruit dermatologists, cancer research groups and public health advocacy organizations to form PASS, and created a website for it that included polling results, legislative updates and ways to contact lawmakers. The effort earned Holland at least $1.1 million in fees, the majority of which came from the ingredient manufacturers in the coalition.

Coalition campaigns – which often include websites with fact sheets, legislative updates and live streams of relevant Tweets and other social media – also serve as a one-stop shop to communicate with the masses, an increasingly important component of the advocacy business as the influence industry continues to move away from shoe-leather lobbying to incorporate public affairs and digital media.

“Often, [lawmakers’] staff will want certain information and we’ll direct them to the website. It saves a lot of paper,” said Jankowsky, of Akin Gump.

Jankowsky is leading another one of Akin’s coalition clients, the Coalition for 21st Century Patent Reform, a group of 40 corporations pushing to curb litigation by so-called patent trolls, which are firms that buy patents and sue companies to collect the licensing fees. The coalition was originally formed a decade ago in the runup to the debate and approval of the America Invents Act in 2011, and has since pivoted to influence patent reform bills, including the PATENT Act, which the Senate Judiciary Committee passed earlier this month.

The patent coalition is one of Akin’s top-paying clients and has paid the firm $8 million over the years, according to lobbying records, split among the eight companies on the coalition’s steering committee: PNG, 3M, Caterpillar, GE, Eli Lilly, Johnson & Johnson, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Exxon. Since 2007, the coalition has paid Akin at least $800,000 annually, with the exception of one year.