In 2014, when federal regulators were considering Comcast’s proposed acquisition of Time Warner, David Cohen, a top Comcast executive, met with leaders of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to address questions and concerns about the deal, which was later withdrawn.
Cohen oversees Comcast’s $15 million-a-year lobbying operation, which contracts with 37 lobby firms and more than 100 lobbyists. But Cohen himself, who directed the cable giant’s Capitol Hill efforts on the proposed $45 billion merger, is not a registered lobbyist. Under federal lobbying laws, he does not spend enough of his time on lobbying activities to meet the legal definition of a lobbyist, the company said.
“Washington is one of maybe ten things he does in his job,” said a Comcast spokeswoman. Cohen also oversees the company’s corporate communications, diversity and other functions.
Cohen is not the only influential figure who, despite being the face of Comcast in Washington, does not have to register as a lobbyist. Former lawmakers symbolize the tightrope between influencer and lobbyist — several who have taken lobbying-related jobs are not registered, including former senators Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), Mark Begich (D-Alaska) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.).
Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D) was emblematic of this trend until just recently. Since leaving Congress in 2005, he has worked at a number of firms, eventually opening his own lobby business in 2014, a subsidiary of the law firm Baker Donelson. But he only earlier this year formally registered as a lobbyist.
“Part of it had to do with my decision that I was unlikely to go back into public service,” Daschle said. “While I had some interest in doing that in the past, I think I hit a stage in my career and in my life when that is unlikely.”
This year, for the ninth consecutive time, the number of registered lobbyists in Washington has fallen. The figure has dropped nearly 30 percent from about 14,800 in 2007 to 10,500 today, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks lobbying activity. But ask virtually any member of Washington’s booming influence industry and they will tell you: there aren’t fewer lobbyists, there are just fewer people labeling themselves as such.
Eschewing the lobbyist label in favor of more palatable designations — policy adviser, strategic counsel or government relations adviser are popular ones — is not new. But it appears to have grown more prevalent during the two terms of President Obama, who put greater restrictions on lobbyists working in the executive branch than any other president.
If Hillary Clinton wins the election in November, there is speculation that she may roll back those restrictions or change them significantly.
Lobbyists in both parties say Obama’s policy encouraged some lobbyists to de-register — and would-be lobbyists not to register — in order to preserve their prospects of working for the administration. But there are other forces driving the trend, and the model of “unregistered” lobbyists seeking to influence the government is likely here to stay unless the next president and Congress close loopholes that allow the practice to flourish.
The Lobbying Disclosure Act, the federal law that governs lobbying, was passed in 1995 and most recently revised in 2007. It requires those who spend at least 20 percent of their time on lobbying activities for a client in a three-month period to register with the Senate. It allows many people who make their living influencing policy to not register and still comply with the law.
“It’s as porous as a sieve,” said Norm Eisen, the former White House “ethics czar” who helped author and enforce Obama’s executive order on lobbyists. “It’s written to capture the activity from the days of two-martini lobbying lunches. And we’re so far beyond that now. It has to be updated.”
The influence industry has since grown larger and more sophisticated, with lobby firms increasingly adding public affairs, consulting and public relations divisions — and the law has not been changed along with the industry.
“You have to mow the lawn more than once every ten years,” Eisen said. “I’m not criticizing any individual lobbyist, I’m criticizing a system that’s broken.”
It is difficult to come up with an exact number of “unregistered” lobbyists. But many people who advise on lobbying strategy as part of their job — including some former prominent lawmakers who now work at lobby firms, or who lead trade groups that lobby Congress — are not required to register because they fall below the 20 percent threshold, creating the perception there are fewer lobbyists than there really are.
Some legislators who join lobby firms after leaving office want to avoid the lobbyist label in case they want to run for political office, or accept a political appointment, in the future.
Daschle said advising clients does not always constitute lobbying.
“I strongly believe that lobbying involves having contact with members of Congress,” he said. “There’s a big difference between advising clients…versus engaging in the day-to-day relationship development with members of Congress. Not everyone agrees with that distinction but I think it’s an important one.”
Many former lawmakers who joined lobby firms after leaving office have not registered. Under ethics rules, ex-senators must wait two years before they can lobby lawmakers; former House members must to wait one year.
Pryor chairs the government affairs group at legal powerhouse Venable, which last year employed about 30 lobbyists who pulled in nearly $10 million in lobbying revenue. His job title is partner.
Begich, the former Democratic senator from Alaska, is a strategic adviser at Brownstein Hyatt, the nation’s second-largest lobby firm. The firm lists him as an “independent contractor” in the government affairs division.
Neither Begich nor Pryor, who both joined K Street after leaving Congress in 2015, is a registered lobbyist, though the firms they work at are major players in the influence industry. Begich, Pryor and spokespeople for their firms either did not respond to requests for comment or declined to comment.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) is chief executive of Financial Services Roundtable, the trade group that lobbies on behalf of banks and investment firms. Pawlenty also is not a registered lobbyist.
“His time spent on activities defined as lobbying does not meet the threshold for registration and an attorney regularly monitors, reviews and confirms that determination,” a spokeswoman for the group said.
Dodd has been the CEO since 2011 of the Motion Picture Association of America, a major figure in town as the MPAA lobbies on behalf of major studios. The MPAA declined to comment.