Wednesday, September 22, 2021
Sept. 22, 2021

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Analysis: Washington is a lobbying boom town under Biden


Democrats who control Capitol Hill have invested copious amounts of messaging this year on overhauling the nation’s political money and influence systems, but both sectors appear poised to smash records nevertheless.

K Street lobbyists this week took a downright jubilant tone when discussing their most recent public disclosures, which reflected an uptick in business fueled by massive government spending; debate over an infrastructure deal and possible tax increases to help foot the bill; and regulatory actions in the Biden administration. A limited return of congressional earmarks and the slim majorities in both chambers have also been a boost to lobbyists’ business.

On the political front, lawmakers of both parties, along with the campaign committees that back them up, continue to force a reassessment of the adjective “eye-popping,” especially in the first months of a midterm election cycle.

Rep. Tom Emmer, who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee, noted Thursday that the committee’s $20.1 million for June was a high-water mark.

“It was our fourth straight record-breaking month, and it was the highest off-year month in the history of the committee,” the Minnesota Republican told reporters. The committee had $55 million in cash on June 30, he said. “This is the highest cash-on-hand total that the committee has ever had at this point,” he said.

Republicans are favored to pick up the five seats they’ll need next year to retake the majority. But the green wave isn’t breaking only for the party out of power.

House Democrats with potentially competitive races ahead next year hold a financial advantage compared with their possibly at-risk GOP colleagues, recent disclosures with the Federal Election Commission show.

Democratic incumbents in districts targeted by Republicans reported, on average, nearly $2 million in cash on hand as of June 30, while House GOP incumbents in districts that Democrats are targeting hold, on average, $750,000, according to a CQ Roll Call analysis of FEC filings.

Like the NRCC, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has posted “back to back record-breaking off-year fundraising quarters” this year, according to the committee’s chairman, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney of New York.

It’s worth noting that individual contribution limits, which adjust for inflation, are $2,900 per election this cycle. But even adjusted for inflation, House candidates of both parties are ahead this year when compared with fundraising at this stage in previous cycles, said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of OpenSecrets, a nonpartisan group that tracks campaign finance and lobbying money.

Of course, it’s still early in the midterm cycle, so it’s difficult to say whether the record-smashing trends will continue. But donors large and small are conditioned to give.

And it seems unlikely that congressional Democrats’ signature 800-plus-page overhaul of campaign finance, lobbying and elections laws will make it into enactment, at least in its current form. The Senate version stalled back in June, and its fate, so far, appears unchanged.

If anything, debate over the bill may simply drive more fundraising as Democrats clamor for an end to the Senate filibuster currently blocking them from advancing the overhaul measure and other stalled legislative priorities, and Republicans mount a backlash.

Though much of the attention on the bill has focused on the changes to elections law, the bill also would reshape how congressional candidates fund their campaigns by instituting an optional public financing system that would match $6 in government money for every $1 raised in small donations. It would mandate new disclosures for groups, such as trade associations and other nonprofits, that engage in political spending and would establish new rules and ethical standards for lobbyists.

K Street, by and large, has carried on just fine. The first months of a new administration are almost always good for business.

The city’s biggest bipartisan lobbying practices disclosed record sums in client fees during the first half of the year, according to reports recently filed to Congress under the Lobbying Disclosure Act. Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, the biggest lobbying outfit, hauled in more than any other firm, with $26.6 million in lobbying fees, up from $24.4 million in the first six months of 2020.

“Every day the issues du jour and their status changes,” says Marc Lampkin, a former GOP leadership aide who runs Brownstein’s Washington office. “Lots of companies have said, ‘We need to invest in what’s going on in Washington.’”

Business for K Street may slow down as lawmakers prepare for the August recess, and lobbying work sometimes ebbs during an election year, which could drive down revenue into 2022. But there’s no sign of that now.

“We have doubled our client load since Biden won, and that’s been record amounts of business,” says Democratic lobbyist Cristina Antelo, who runs the bipartisan shop Ferox Strategies.

She said the new Congress and administration, government spending including the limited return of congressional earmarks, infrastructure and tax proposals were all driving business. The firm’s diverse staff — Antelo is Latina — has also helped attract clients, she added.

“Clients want good lobbyists that happen to be people of color, that happen to be women,” she said. “The same windfall you’re seeing at the big shops, the little shops are seeing too.”