Archive for January, 2014

Much Ado About SOTU

Thursday, January 30th, 2014 by James Cameron

MANY AMERICANS VIEW the State of the Union address as a lot of rhetoric and not much substance.  But for lobbyists and policymakers, what the president does (or doesn’t) say can make or break an issue.

As POLITICO notes, if Obama even briefly mentions an issue or a piece of legislation, it can make the difference between the issue gaining traction in Congress or wasting away. Further, if the President talks about something for which a lobbyist is advocating, it can generate massive credibility for both the lobbyist and his firm, even if they had no part in getting it mentioned in the speech.

Following this year’s speech, for example, LGBT groups were disappointed that Obama made no mention of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would ban employers from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Indeed, Obama barely touched on LGBT issues at all, making only a brief reference to marriage equality.  As the Huffington Post notes, this may be indicative of the administration’s view that it has enough political capital with the LGBT community that it can afford to ruffle some feathers.  The case nonetheless demonstrates both the impact of the SOTU as well as the delicate political maneuvering involved.

Likewise, the guests invited by members of Congress (each lawmaker is allowed one) can have legislative implications for the coming year.  Predictably, as PBS notes, more than a dozen Republican members brought business owners and individuals who were negatively impacted by the Affordable Care Act.  By the same token, Democrats brought guests who benefitted from the ACA.  Democrats (especially the Illinois delegation) also brought at least five immigration advocates.  Some lawmakers took a decidedly less conventional approach, though.  POLITICO reports that Rep. Vance McAllister (R-La.) brought Willie Robertson, star of “Duck Dynasty.”  This blogger wonders if Rep. McAllister will now get to appear on the show.

As with most things in Washington, the State of the Union comes with a side of rhetoric and political bluster.  Although every word of the State of the Union need not have far-reaching policy implications, it’s clear that for lobbyists, policymakers, and political forecasters, the Address can have a significant impact on the year to come.

Retailers Request More Regs

Friday, January 24th, 2014 by Geoffrey Lyons

IN WASHINGTON, pressure to regulate big business is no novelty.  But things seem rather topsy-turvy when the source of that pressure is big business itself.

The National Journal explains why retailers have concluded that more federal intervention is a good thing.  At least, that is, when it comes to data.

In the wake of the holiday data breaches, Target and others are “begging Congress to tell them what to do.”  That’s because they’re currently subject to 47 different compliance standards for 46 states plus D.C.  They’d much rather have just one.

But building support for a “unified standard” isn’t easy.  As the Journal notes, “educating conservatives” is the most daunting obstacle. Those with purist laissez-faire sentiments have a visceral dislike for all regulations, so it takes some convincing to disabuse them of the idea that a single standard is “just another nanny-state intrusion into companies’ private affairs.” Even Mary Bono, a former Republican Congresswoman from California and supporter of the standard, admits that the whole thing is “sort of counterintuitive.”

And so it may be. Yet it remains perfectly logical for a behemoth like Target, with 1,797 stores in the U.S. alone, to want to answer to the State and not the states. Another giant, Amazon, has faced a similar challenge with regard to state sales tax.  It seems that for the mega retailers, more government can actually mean less.

2013 in 12 Posts

Wednesday, January 15th, 2014 by Geoffrey Lyons

2013 WAS AN eventful year for K St.  Two hours after the ball dropped on Times Square, the Senate averted dropping the ball on the country by passing a fiscal cliff compromise.  Yet the deal only kicked the proverbial can and did nothing to alleviate the preceding months’ political paralysis, which lobbyists blamed for their abysmal first quarter expenditures.

Throughout the year, different lobbies got more aggressive when the time was ripe: pro- and anti-gun lobbies in the wake of Sandy Hook, for example, and pro- and anti-marijuana lobbies in response to shifting public opinion on pot.  Even animal welfare groups came out of the woodwork when a bill was on the table to crack down on the breeding of big cats.

Popular tech companies continued their K St. colonization.  Twitter hired a lobbyist in August; Yelp in October.  (In fact, I write this barely a week after Snapchat snagged their own lobbyists from Heather Podesta).  The Yelp hire was announced ten days into the third-longest government shutdown in U.S. history, which predictably exasperated lobbyists.

Finally, some lobbyists were punished for their negligence.  Biassi Business Services Inc. was fined $33 million for failing to submit 124 compliance forms, and two men in Chicago were prosecuted for lobbying on behalf of Robert Mugabe.

Much is left out of this Cliff Notes version of the year in review.  To help fill some of the gaps, here’s 2013 in 12 LobbyBlog posts:

January – GW Professor David Rehr kicks off the New Year with some advice to lobbyists.

February – A graduate student at the University of Michigan argues against the idea that lobbying is inherently unethical.

March – Amy Showalter on “The One Thing You Aren’t (But Should Be) Thinking About When Hiring a Lobbyist.”

April – A disastrous first quarter has everyone talking.

May – A lobby battle kindles over cats.

June – In vino controversy: The first wine consumer advocacy group launches.

July – The world’s richest man leads an unpopular lobbying campaign.

August – Whoops: Chicago men caught lobbying for Robert Mugabe.

September – POLITICO: “Can we see your lobbying records?” CIA: “Absolutely not.”

October – So there’s no government.  Did K St. shut down too?

November – Who’s the best lobbyist? LobbyBlog interviews The Hill.

December – Roses are red, red tape is too: House Ethics dabbles in poetry.

Yelp Gives Lobbying Five Stars

Friday, January 10th, 2014 by James Cameron

IT’S UNDERSTOOD WITHIN the beltway that to remain successful, companies should lobby. As Apple learned the hard way, not having friends in Washington can backfire when the political winds are unfavorable. That’s a lesson fellow tech company Yelp has taken to heart, as they’ve dramatically boosted their Washington lobbying presence in the last few months.

Before this fall, it seemed as though Yelp didn’t think much of having advocates on the Hill, but that’s rapidly changing. In October, The Hill reported that the tech company hired its first lobbyist in Laurent Crenshaw, a former aide to Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) on the House Oversight Committee.

Unlike fellow tech companies like Google and Facebook, both of which have had a lobbying presence on Capitol Hill for years, Yelp is late to the lobbying game. But they seem intent on making up for lost time. Ars Technica reports that Yelp registered its first PAC with the Federal Election Commission on December 31st, a sure sign that the company intends to step into the influence game.

So on what issues will Yelp focus its lobbying efforts? As The Hill notes, Yelp depends on user-generated reviews, so it must ensure that it can host negative reviews of businesses without being vulnerable to libel suits. Further, Yelp is seeking the creation of a federal anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuits against public participation) law. Supporters of the bill argue that such lawsuits are used to intimidate users of companies such as Yelp who post negative reviews of businesses. By supporting an anti-SLAPP bill, Yelp would ensure that its livelihood (namely user reviews) is protected.

Of course, as The Huffington Post notes, Yelp will also likely lobby on many of the same issues that Facebook and Google have backed, in particular the Innovation Act, which seeks to curtail patent trolls and which passed the House of Representatives last month.

Will Yelp’s efforts pay off?  History suggests that they will. As The Sunlight Foundation found in 2012, companies who lobby do better than companies that don’t, and with Apple’s advocacy face plant fresh in Silicon Valley’s mind, it seems likely that other tech companies will take Yelp’s lead.

Do Expenditures Matter?

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014 by Geoffrey Lyons

“Q3 LOBBYING EXPENDITURES DOWN,” “Lobbing Spending to Rebound in 2014,” “K St. Outlays Dip in December,” – such headlines splash across the pages of Washington-based newspapers. It has become so routine to discuss the business of lobbying exclusively in these terms that one feels the itch to challenge convention and to pose the following question: can expenditures stand alone as a reliable measure of advocacy’s vitality?

The answer is obviously no, which most people with a critical eye on Washington lobbying recognize . The shrewd reporter will temper his headline with subtler analysis, explaining, for instance, how the de-registration phenomenon (so frequently discussed in this blog) distorts the data, and supplying opinions of industry leaders apt to tell a story that contradicts the numbers.

Yet the appeal to quarterly spending has become so common, has sunk so deeply into the collective consciousness, that it may be corroding our understanding of how lobbying really functions. Firstly, much as money matters on K St., success is often rooted in the intangibles. Making new contacts, for example, and cultivating existing ones. These things often precede spending both in time and in importance, and they’re difficult, if impossible, to measure.

Secondly, even if spending were as important as it’s typically portrayed, it doesn’t follow that it’s best divided into neat three-month and one-year increments, as it is now by virtue of disclosure requirements. Some issues take years to appear on the legislative calendar–it’d be ludicrous to claim that everything is on the same timetable. In fact, the only thing that’s more ludicrous is to assume this is the case, which is precisely the current problem.

Finally, a lobbyists’ success in Washington is strictly bounded by the political environment in which he works. To get something through committee may be a small victory one year and a large one the next. By definition, a “do-nothing Congress” is the sort of setup that renders doing anything a grand success. So, to impose an overworked phrase on the reader, “it’s all relative”–especially in Washington.

Much of this is common knowledge within the beltway. Yet even reminding oneself of what one already knows can be a useful defense against lazy thinking, especially that which tends to overemphasizes the importance of something.  And if anything at all tends to be overemphasized by the coterie of reporters covering Washington lobbying (great as they are), it’s the importance of lobbying expenditures.  They just don’t matter that much.

Lobbyists as “Strategic Advisers”

Friday, January 3rd, 2014 by Geoffrey Lyons

IN TUESDAY’S New York Times, opinion writer Thomas Edsall wrote about the changing face of lobbying since the passage of HLOGA, echoing many themes that have recently appeared on this blog.  On earmarks, for example, Edsall wrote that “…the lobbying firm Cassidy and Associates has paid a heavy price for the earmark ban.”  LobbyBlog had previously asserted that “for Cassidy and others, losing earmarks was like losing the ground on which they stood.”  Edsall also cited a recent study that used Lobbyists.info data:   “Using LaPira’s reasoning, total spending to influence legislative and regulatory outcomes in 2012 doubled from $3.1 billion to $6.7 billion.”  LobbyBlog had, of course, cited the same study: “The current figure, which only accounts for legally disclosed spending, is $3.31 billion.  LaPira estimates that over twice that – an eye-watering $6.7 billion – was actually spent last year.”  (For the record, $3.31 (not $3.1) billion is the correct figure).

If these excerpts are indications that Edsall is a fan of this blog, then your humble bloggers are pleased.  If, more likely, they merely highlight the general consensus among the few of us who write about lobbying that certain undeniable trends are reshaping the business, then your humble bloggers are no less pleased.  This is mostly because Edsall casts refreshing new light on the phenomenon of de-registration to supplement the old arguments about lobbying drifting into the shadows, or the inaccuracy of disclosure numbers (Edsall: “If you look at the numbers, it may seem that lobbying is in decline, but it isn’t; it’s just taking different forms.”  LobbyBlog: “A decline in reported lobbying is not always synonymous with a decline in lobbying.”)

For example, most commentaries on de-registration or the “driving underground” of a formerly functioning disclosure framework don’t even attempt to explain what these newly underground lobbyists are doing with themselves.  Edsall’s, on the other hand, focuses entirely upon this point.  “The action has shifted,” he writes, “to what is known in the business as strategic advice: how to convince and mobilize voters and opinion elites in support of a client’s agenda.”  This description demands greater clarity, which Edsall is quick to supply:

So what does this new strategic adviser actually do? He or she can plan out a legislative campaign or a drive to affect the implementation of regulation, determine which officials and agencies must be dealt with, and propose potential coalition partners….Interestingly, all this can be done without making direct contact with elected officials, congressional aides or top-ranked department and agency appointees and employees. This arms-length approach permits strategic advisers to avoid lobbying registration and reporting requirements.

Something is striking about the idea that “…all this can be done without making direct contact with elected officials….”  If this is so, are we still talking about lobbying?  The case can be made here that if the “unlobbyist” is refraining from the fundamental activities that define lobbying, then maybe lobbyists aren’t being driven underground but rather driven out.  Even if Edsall doesn’t make direct appeal to this point, he at least provokes one to explore it, and to explore lobbying’s future, rather than dwell on its present.   The future of lobbying: that, alas, is for another blog post.  Or, if he gets to it first, another article by Thomas Edsall.