Lobbyist revenue healthy but down from ‘bonanza’ of early Obama years
President Donald Trump’s vow to “drain the swamp” hasn’t dented the incomes of Washington lobbyists.
Lobbyists across town raked in a total of more than $3.3 billion during the first year of Trump’s administration, according to figures compiled for POLITICO by the Center for Responsive Politics.
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Many of K Street’s top firms saw revenue rise by double-digit percentages compared to 2016, driven by intense lobbying on Republicans’ failed push to repeal Obamacare and successful effort to revamp the tax code.
But the industry as whole saw its revenue tick up modestly compared to 2016, when lobbying firms brought in $3.2 billion. And 2017 paled in comparison to the boom times of President Barack Obama’s first years in office, when lawmakers passed a stimulus bill designed to boost the economy, the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul and a major revamp of the health-care system. All that activity propelled lobbying revenues to nearly $4 billion in 2009, adjusted for inflation.
Republican and Democratic lobbyists alike said Trump’s talk of draining the swamp and curbing the influence of K Street hadn’t hurt their businesses in 2017. Instead, they saw the continuation of a decade-long trend. The industry in Washington saw the number of registered lobbyists decline to 11,472 in 2017 from about 14,000 in 2009, as more businesses turn to grassroots-influence campaigns and social media efforts that do not require them to register with the federal government.
Rich Gold, who leads the lobbying practice at the law firm Holland & Knight, said Trump’s first year in office did not inspire the “lobbying bonanza” of the early Obama years, in part because of the current president’s limited legislative agenda. Trump’s plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act took up much of Congress’s energy before it eventually fell apart, and a massive tax bill — which took nearly two years to craft under President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s — came together in only a few months at the end of the year.
“I think all of the uncertainty helped hold business back,” Gold said.
But other lobbyists said they profited from the administration’s early turmoil.
“There were a number of companies trying to figure out how to navigate the new administration,” said Muftiah McCartin, a lobbyist at Covington & Burling, which saw its lobbying revenue shoot up by more than 40 percent in 2017 compared to a year earlier.
The Trump administration’s willingness to scrap Obama administration regulations helped drive business, too, according to former Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), who’s now a lobbyist at Hogan Lovells. His firm saw its revenue rise by 14 percent last year compared to 2016.
Still, the early alarm that prompted some companies to invest in lobbying muscle has subsided the longer Trump has been in office.
“Everyone’s reaction to a lot of the pronouncements coming out of the White House is a little more muted,” said Elizabeth Gore, who leads the government relations department at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, the No. 2 lobbying firm in Washington by revenue.
Many former lobbyists now work in the administration, despite Trump’s campaign-trail criticism of such revolving door moves.
“They’ve hired an awful of people from K Street,” said Ivan Adler, a headhunter who specializes in the lobbying industry. (He hastened to add that hiring lobbyists was not a bad thing, given their experience with the inner workings of the federal government.)
Lobbying firms have also been eager to bring on former Trump campaign staffers and others with ties to the administration. The demand has been so strong that lobbying firms are paying a premium to hire people with administration connections. “We’re probably talking in some cases another $100,000 [above] what they may have gotten otherwise,” Adler said.
Two of the firms that saw the most growth last year were led by lobbyists with close ties to Trump.
Ballard Partners, a Florida lobbying firm led by Brian Ballard, a top fundraiser for Trump during the campaign, opened a Washington office last year and signed dozens of clients, bringing in nearly $10 million in its first year in town. And American Continental Group, run by David Urban, a lobbyist who helped Trump win Pennsylvania, saw its revenue nearly double to $12.6 million last year from $7 million in 2016.
Many Democratic-leaning firms, unsurprisingly, fared worse.
“We expected to take a hit, and we took a hit,” said Steve Elmendorf, a prominent Democratic lobbyist who is a founder of the firm Subject Matter.
Subject Matter had only Democrats on staff at the beginning of 2017 and saw its lobbying revenue fall slightly. The firm responded by hiring Republicans and beefed up its communications practice to make up the shortfall.
But Democratic lobbyists’ fortunes may change this year if the party looks like it’s poised to retake the House.
“I think people are starting to think more about House Democrats right now,” said Elmendorf, a one-time chief of staff to former House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt. “Even the most optimistic Republican is going to tell you’re they’re going to lose” seats.
January 24, 2018 at 07:27PMNo tags for this post.