Apple's fight with the FBI is widening beyond the courts. The company now wants to lay the debate before Congress, where new legislation could help keep the government at bay as it tries to gain access to a phone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters.
But the tech company's odds may be hindered due to a strategic choice that stretches back years, lobbyists and former congressional staffers say. Here's why.
Apple’s lobbying presence in Washington is tiny compared to other tech firms. The company spent roughly $4.5 million on lobbying last year, which sounds like a lot, until you look at some of its peers.
Microsoft spent roughly double what Apple did in 2015, lobbying records show. Facebook's lobbying budget was nearly $10 million last year. And Google spent nearly $17 million — nearly four times as much as Apple.
Apple has vastly expanded its lobbying under chief executive Tim Cook, who took over the company in 2011. It has devoted more money to lobbying in the past 5 years than in all of the last 13 years prior to that, combined. It's a member of nearly two dozen trade associations with big Washington operations such as the Consumer Technology Association and The App Association, according to Apple's public policy website. Apple hired former Environmental Protection Agency chief Lisa Jackson in 2013 to work on environmental policy issues, and it has snapped up top Hill staffers from both political parties.
But Apple has generally pursued a policy of detachment, say experienced lobbyists and congressional hands. And the company's reluctance to rub elbows with policymakers has left Cook with little maneuvering room.
In fact, some added, Apple has failed to grasp a foundational lesson in policymaking: Lobbying isn't just about asking the government for things.
"A big part of being in Washington is about preventing problems," said one lobbyist, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record. "They do want something, but what they want is to be left alone. But that takes lobbying."
Apple has important interests in Washington. For example, Cook's last major appearance before Congress dealt with the tens of billions in taxes the company would have to pay if it brought all the money it holds overseas back into the United States. And the company's latest dance with the Justice Department, over cellphone encryption, has been years in the making.
Yet Apple has seldom taken a leading role in inside-the-Beltway debates, said a former congressional staffer who specializes in technology issues. Instead, the company prefers to allow other companies to advocate publicly or privately on issues they have in common.
"There are certainly certain items they missed out on by not being more aggressive," said the staffer. "And I can assure you they missed out on building a relationship with congressional members and offices that other entities — that do play the inside-the-Beltway game — are able to cultivate."
In some ways, Apple's relative dearth of relationships on Capitol Hill makes it a more vulnerable target. Unlike companies with large, well-funded lobbying teams, Apple lacks the means to avoid the government spotlight when it happens to settle upon them. Apple has few lawmakers that it can reliably call to its defense, though in the current confrontation with the Justice Department, high-profile members such as Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) have volunteered for the role.
What makes Apple's studied silence in Washington all the more mysterious is the company's position at the top of the global economy. It has more cash than a typical company would know what to do with. Why not take a fraction of that money, and invest it in politicians Apple might someday need?
One reason may be that Apple believes its universally respected brand literally speaks for itself: During the 2013 tax hearings, members of Congress spent as much time prodding the company's tax practices as they did waving around and complimenting its products.
Apple may also subscribe to the idea that Washington is for slimy people doing slimy things, which would not be out of character for a company based in Silicon Valley. Apple's late founder, Steve Jobs, long eschewed getting the company mixed up in Washington politics.
But Apple can no longer afford to avoid dealing with Washington, said Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.), the topmost Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.
"In the earlier days of Apple, they wanted little to do with the federal government," said Schiff. "… [but] I had a long conversation yesterday with Apple's general counsel on the legal issues involved [in the iPhone case] and that's a good indicator of just how engaged they are."
In some cases, it has taken a high-profile dispute to pull tech companies into Washington. Microsoft, for one, took pains to avoid Washington until antitrust officials took the company to court in the late 1990s. Since then, Microsoft has maintained a steady presence in Washington: It spent 140 percent more on lobbying in 2004 than it did in 1998. And it has even become Apple's ally in its fight against the FBI; the Redmond, Wash. company said Thursday it would file a court brief supporting Apple's position on encryption.
Ultimately, Apple's reticence to play Washington hardball may be a good thing for democracy, if you take the view that corporations should be reinvesting their profits in R&D instead of frittering their money away in the nation’s capital defending against real or manufactured policy battles. Imagine if every corporation stopped lobbying tomorrow and instead redirected that money toward new products or the public's interest.
That’s never going to happen, obviously. But there’s an argument that Apple’s limited Washington strategy — naive as it may have been — is better than the alternative, which is pouring good money after bad into the dumpster fire that is modern Washington.
An Apple spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.