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Fewer Lobbyists, More Money: What’s Going On?

Although the number of lobbyists has declined, the amount companies spent on lobbying was the largest since 2012.

Before President Trump was sworn in, his rhetoric and treatment of lobbyists seemed pretty harsh. He announced lobbyists would be kicked off the transition team and registered lobbyists couldn’t work in his administration, and some lobbyists deregistered to stand a chance to serve. Then things turned, and Trump was soon letting former lobbyists serve on his temporary beachhead teams, fund his transition and inauguration, and receive waivers to allow them to join the government and work on the same issues they did in the private sector.

But that doesn’t mean his initial drain-the-swamp language didn’t send a message: From January to March, the number of registered lobbyists dropped 10.3 percent compared to 2016’s first quarter, with only 9,175 official lobbyists on record. That number has been declining in recent years, but this is the biggest drop since lobbying reports started being reported quarterly.

“The transition had a policy of not communicating with registered lobbyists and the first quarter decline is likely a result of lobbyists reading the writing on the wall and assuming the hostility demonstrated in the Obama years is going to continue in the Trump administration,” said Caleb Burns, partner at Wiley Rein LLP.

But that’s not the whole story: Although the number of people trying to sweet talk government officials has declined, the amount companies spent on the practice was the largest for a first quarter since 2012, at $838.4 million.

“For the first time in the past five years, there is a lot of energy in Washington in terms of getting legislation passed,” Burns said. “Lobbying up until this quarter has been defensive, oftentimes to ensure that nothing did happen. Those registered were not working at 100 percent, but now given the general atmosphere they’re working furiously on behalf of their clients. I’ve never seen the business community this excited in the two decades I’ve been in Washington.”

The pharmaceutical and health products industry spent the most at $78 million, about $10 million more than it did during the same period in 2016 for a 14 percent increase. (PhRMA did have the biggest spending spike of the top 10 spenders.) Oil and gas interests also pumped up their spending compared to last year, pouring in $36.1 million compared to $32.4 million in 2016, or 11 percent more.

Tech saw some record-breaking numbers from big names in the industry: Facebook spent $3.2 million this quarter, more than any previous quarter since the year social media platform first registered in 2009. (For context, it spent $2.78 million during last year’s first quarter.) It reported lobbying on cybersecurity and terrorism, high-tech worker visas and free trade agreements. Apple also spent the most it has in a quarter at $1.4 million, on self-driving cars, “issues related to mobile devices and health” and government requests for data. Google (or Alphabet) spent a few hundred thousand less than last year, but still topped other tech firms at $3.5 million, lobbying on online ads, “policies on online controversial content” (fake news?) and “travel from countries of concern.”

Among the top 100 spenders, a handful stood out for some huge jumps in spending compared to last year. Chevron, for instance, upped the ante by 77 percent, spending $3.3 million compared to $1.9 million last year, disapproving of environmental rules introduced by the previous administration. (As well as “understanding requirements” for Trump’s “Buy American Hire American” order.) Teva Pharmaceutical Industries increased its spending by 115 percent, from $1.2 million to $2.7 million in 2016. It lobbied on Medicaid rebates and the proposed board adjustment tax.

And the National Rifle Association broke into seven digit spending in a single quarter for the first time, spending $2.2 million, compared to $735,000 in 2016. Not surprisingly, the NRA focused on measures having to do with guns and hunting, including some unusual ones, such as a bill to “allow the importation of polar bear parts taken legally in sports hunts in Canada.”

As for those who cut back, Duke Energy decreased spending by 43 percent compared to last year’s first quarter, spending $1.4 million. (That’s what the energy company spent the last three quarters as well, however, with last January through March being a high spending period with $2.5 million.) Pharmaceutical company Merck saw a 47 percent drop, to $1.7 million from $3.3 million last year. And spending by the National Association of Broadcasters declined by 21 percent, to $3.8 million compared with $4.7 million in the first three months of 2016.

As for the firms getting paid, Akin Gump stayed on top with $9.2 million in earnings, which was actually a 4.5 percent drop from last year’s first quarter. In fact, of the top ten earners, half brought in less money than the same time last year: Brownstein, Podesta Group, Capitol Counsel and Van Scoyoc Associates. Covington & Burling had the biggest increase, at 32 percent, and Squire Patton Boggs had a jump of 25 percent.

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