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Lobbying by the highest-spending corporations and trade associations increased overall last year. While some whose businesses were hurt by the coronavirus reduced their spending, several bolstered their advocacy budgets to influence pandemic relief legislation.
The top 40 corporate and trade associations spent almost $619 million last year on advocacy, an 8% increase over the $568 million in 2019. Half of those spenders reported big increases, including the National Association of Realtors, Facebook Inc., Unilever Plc, and the American Chemistry Council.
For some companies and trade groups, the flurry of legislative and regulatory activity spurred by the federal government’s response to Covid-19 drove an increase in lobbying activity. In turn, many of the top lobbying firms in Washington posted record-high revenue figures as clients sought to understand and influence the federal response to Covid-19.
Unilever, a global consumer goods company known for brands including Ben & Jerry’s, Dove, TRESemmé, and Lipton Tea, posted the biggest increase in corporate lobbying. Its 2020 spending was roughly equal to its lobbying expenditures from 2012 through 2019 combined.
Among the issues the company lobbied on in 2020 were grants for recycling-related infrastructure, advocating for an increase in SNAP payments as part of coronavirus relief, and conversations with the Food and Drug Administration regarding other Covid-19 issues that include supply chain problems, essential operations designations, and vaccine distribution.
Unilever has no outside lobbying firms on retainer. It discloses its advocacy spending using the “IRS method,” which defines lobbying spending more broadly and includes activities such as political advertising, state-level advocacy, and grassroots activity, according to its forms and a corporate spokesman.
“The increase in 2020 is due to additional advertising by our brands in support of social and environmental legislation aligned with their brand purpose,” Steve Alessandrini, the head of Unilever’s corporate communications in North America, said in an email. Their two largest ad campaigns dealt with reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act and prohibiting race-based hair discrimination.
Top health-care spenders CVS Health Corp. and Roche Holding AG, which includes subsidiaries Hoffmann-La Roche AG, Genentech Inc., Foundational Medicine Inc., and Spark Therapeutics Inc., posted increases in their advocacy. Pfizer Inc., which makes one of the coronavirus vaccines, disclosed less spending on lobbying, while Amgen Inc. increased its expenditures.
The National Association of Realtors overtook the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as the No. 1 industry group spender on K Street in 2020. It spent $42.8 million more on lobbying than it did in 2019 and $11 million more than its previous high in 2018.
“Securing protections for our Realtor members in COVID-19 relief legislation was our focus throughout much of 2020 and remains critical to NAR’s advocacy efforts in the months ahead,” Wes Shaw, a spokesman for the group, wrote in an email. Shaw didn’t respond to a follow-up inquiry about what contributed to such a massive uptick.
Both the Realtors and the Chamber use the broader IRS method when calculating their lobbying spending.
The Chamber, which perennially tops the list of lobbying spenders, was outspent despite its own 21% increase. That jump was, in part, the result of an administrative change in the middle of the third quarter of last year that legally folded the Institute for Legal Reform into the Chamber, thus consolidating their lobbying spending, according to spokesman Tim Doyle.
But the Chamber’s year-end figure still lagged behind its spending during the previous two presidential election years, as the group began advocating less and working more with state and local chambers to “educate small businesses on how to best use the CARES Act to weather the economic crisis brought on by COVID-19,” Neil Bradley, the Chamber’s chief policy officer, said in a statement.
A spokesman for the National Association of Manufacturers said its signficant decrease was largely due to the group diverting its resources to help its members deal with the pandemic rather than lobby policymakers.
For the Pharmaceutical Care Management Association, its significant increase came as it focused on fighting a Trump administration regulation that aims to end the rebates that drug manufacturers pay to pharmacy benefit managers. Greg Lopes, a spokesman for the group, said in an email that “PCMA vigorously opposed the rebate rule because it would increase Medicare Part D premiums and significantly increase taxpayer costs.”
The American Chemistry Council’s lobbying spending increase can be attributed primarily to 10 issue ads it ran to thank a “set of elected officials from both parties for their leadership in helping essential businesses and their employees during a pandemic,” Scott Openshaw, a spokesman for the group, said in an email.
To contact the reporter on this story: Megan R. Wilson in Washington at email@example.com