President Joe Biden’s multitrillion-dollar infrastructure package presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make a mark on federal policy—and, as Washington’s legion of lobbyists know, it’s also an opportunity to make some serious bank.
With Biden’s speech outlining the package last week, it was “off to the races,” said Chay English, a lobbyist at BGR Group, a top D.C. firm with recent clients such as Chevron, the AFL-CIO, and Verizon.
“Everyone wants to play in this space—it is the talk of the town, and because the administration has defined infrastructure so broadly, everyone has potential skin in the game,” English told The Daily Beast. “I can’t think of one client that’s like, ‘We’re gonna sit this one out.’”
Asked how all this interest has been for business, English was diplomatic. “I will say this, we’ve not had any downtime,” he said. “I’ll put it like that.”
Even with most staff still working from home due to coronavirus, the frenzy is being felt on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers, especially more junior ones and those on the relevant committees, have been slammed with requests to speak with all sorts of lobbyists. Their aides, meanwhile, are fielding requests of their own for Zoom meetings, coffees, and drinks from the emissaries of K Street, the Beltway term for the lobbying industry.
“A lot of firms are pulling out all the stops in terms of who knows someone in an office—they’re really backchanneling to try to get meetings scheduled,” one Democratic aide said. “They’re adapting to COVID by pulling every string they can to get in the virtual door.”
At the moment, however, it’s what lobbyists don’t know about the emerging legislation that is animating many of their anxieties, fueling their efforts to get the right feet in the right doors on Capitol Hill.
The package, dubbed the American Jobs Plan, is sure to have game-changing proposals that will prove a boon to a vast array of companies and interest groups. It’s also sure to have some kind of corporate tax hike that will harsh whatever buzz those goodies create. The finer points of all this remain murky as Congress gears up for what will be a protracted legislative battle.
“We’re interested in potential offense, and we’re interested in potential defense,” said a lobbyist at a marquee U.S. company, speaking anonymously to candidly describe the dynamics. “It’s hard to prepare. We don’t know when the game is going to be played, where the game is going to be played, we’re not sure what sport we’re going to play, and we’re trying to train for it right now.”
Despite the unknowns, lobbyists have been training for months, ever since it became clear Biden’s biggest priority after COVID relief would be a sweeping infrastructure package. And that entails doing what they do best: figuring out which decision-makers they need to get in front of, competing for previous slices of their time and attention, and hoping it pays off later.
Biden’s proposed infrastructure plan, which could be the most high-priced bill in U.S. history, is set to encompass a lot more than roads and bridges. There’s $175 billion for electric vehicle incentives, $25 billion for airports, $213 billion for housing improvements, and another $100 billion for universal high-speed internet. And then there are many hundreds of billions more for a host of initiatives, including climate, clean water, labor, child care and senior care policy.
The legislation is also likely to codify the most significant changes to the U.S. tax code since 2017, when Republicans passed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Biden wants to raise the corporate tax rate to 28 percent—it’s currently at 21 percent, after Republicans cut it from 35 percent in their 2017 tax bill—close loopholes for fossil fuel companies, and crack down on corporate use of tax shelters.
It’s a rare moment; virtually any company, interest group, or trade group in the country has a stake. Adding to the sense of importance and urgency is a growing consensus inside the Beltway that this legislation might be the marquee achievement of Biden’s presidency—and perhaps the last major bill that gets done before the 2022, or even 2024, elections.
It’s hard to quantify just yet what a boon this bill could be for the lobbying sector, but there are early clues. Since January, 74 new registrations have been filed for lobbying on infrastructure issues—far more than over the same period in recent years. Those registrations reveal new D.C. representation for industry giants like Uber, General Motors, and T-Mobile, but also New York’s Metropolitan Transit Agency, and municipal governments from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Camarillo, California.
Powerful interests have already gotten to work on public-facing campaigns to influence the legislation. Trade groups representing telecommunications giants, for example, are beginning to go after Biden’s $100 billion proposal for universal broadband over concerns they will lose out on contracts to service providers run by nonprofits or even local governments.
Some lawmakers and outside watchdogs are already sounding concerns about the room, and leverage, that corporate lobbyists could have to quietly shape smaller but significant provisions tucked into such a sweeping bill.
“I worry about the details,” said Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA), a senior member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “This is obviously going to be a massive bill, probably thousands of pages.”
Huffman expressed concern that some industry-friendly provisions could sneak through the process. “There's an element of trust involved, because most members are not going to have a chance to read every bit of it, especially provisions that are not part of their committee jurisdiction,” he said.
Huffman specifically mentioned the telecom industry’s possible influence on the broadband expansion proposal. “They have tremendous lobbying influence—I’m going to be looking to my colleagues on [the House Energy and Commerce Committee] and doing my best to keep up with that, but that's a challenge.”
The lobbying environment is changing, however. More and more members of Congress are adding another layer of insulation between themselves and corporations by pledging not to take corporate PAC contributions. Beyond that, lobbyists and aides agree the pandemic is making it harder to get meetings scheduled and calls returned.
If you didn’t have a pre-existing relationship before March 2020, said one lobbyist, it’s going to be hard to make anything happen now. A Democratic aide put their approach to many lobbyists another way: “You’re not going to set up an awkward Zoom for them to ask your boss for something.”
Upon taking office, Biden signed an executive order on ethics and lobbying that experts say is tougher than those in past administrations, which could prove pivotal as the bill is actually being implemented.
"As the frenzy to shape the infrastructure package commences, corporate America will, unfortunately, be as unconstrained as ever,” said Eleanor Eagan of the Revolving Door Project, a nonprofit group that scrutinizes the “revolving door” between government and the private sector. “But it is worth noting that, thanks to Biden’s ethics executive order, it will face some more obstacles in the, arguably equally important, work of shaping final regulations, guidance, administration, and enforcement priorities.”
The sweeping scope of the bill is also likely to pit powerful corporate interests against each other. A set of companies, like FedEx and Toyota, are advocating for a package that is largely paid for through an increase in federal fuel and gas taxes, not an across-the-board tax hike. Giants like Amazon, however, oppose that plan.
One lobbyist predicted to The Daily Beast that corporate America is likely to be divided on key planks like this one, which could give Biden and Democrats an advantage.
“I don’t know what the reception is going to be to our arguments. I don’t know if we’re going to get a ton of sympathy,” said this lobbyist, who works for a company that wants to see the gas tax raised instead. “It feels like we’re getting a lot of medicine to go along with the sugar. We’re just seeing what we can stomach.”
As committees in both chambers begin working through the finer points of the package, many lobbyists are finding themselves in a similar place: scrounging for information across Capitol Hill to assuage anxious clients, especially on the prospects of a tax hike.
“The hunger for information has been a bit more than normal—it’s just a different administration,” said Dean Aguillen, a senior vice president at Ogilvy Government Relations, which has represented some of the country’s biggest companies in the last year. “It’s not an administration that’s gonna brief all the corporate CEOs on what they're going to do before they do it.”
For those lobbyists with strong enough relationships to get a precious slice of lawmakers’ or aides’ time, in the absence of details, there’s plenty of strategic listening.
“We certainly talk to leadership and committee chairs a lot, but also other allies of ours, in hopes that they’ll be prepared to support our efforts when the time is right, or be on the lookout for things that could bear down on us when the time is right,” said one of the lobbyists for a major U.S. corporation.
For the first time in a decade, Democrats run Washington, D.C., and if the infrastructure package passes, it’s likely to do so with only Democrat support. Lobbyists who used to work for Democrats or with deep Democratic ties have the edge on Capitol Hill in 2021. But K Street is still calibrating its outreach to Republican lawmakers who might shape the bill and then, ultimately, likely vote against it.
José Ceballos, a Democratic lobbyist with S-3 Group, predicted that engagement with Republicans would likely begin once the contours of the bill are known—and once Republicans are sure it’s actually going to happen.
So far, Ceballos said, most of the action has been on the Democratic side, and he said there is skepticism on the Republican side of the aisle that anything will emerge that can make it through the House and the Senate. “They are not 100 percent convinced that something is going to happen,” he said, noting that a transportation bill has been promised for years but hasn’t happened.
One Republican strategist who represents clients with a stake in the bill said it was still unclear what aspects of the legislation would be most appealing to Republican lawmakers and how to approach them given the universal opposition to most Democratic-led legislation.
For now, however, after four years of Donald Trump and 10 years of Republicans controlling at least one lever of Congress, Democrats and Democratic lobbyists are ready for the policy frenzy.
“As a Democrat, Democrats are better for the lobbying business. They do things! Whether you’re for it or against it, they’re the ones actually active in the government space,” said Aguillen, who worked for House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi from 2002 to 2008.
“What the president learned from his time in the last White House is doing an economic stimulus at the beginning is not enough,” Aguillen continued. “You’ve got to have something substantial that's going to last. This is a huge bite at the apple.”
—with reporting from Jackie Kucinich