WASHINGTON—Corporations are scrambling to retool their lobbying efforts as Republicans, preparing for control of the House, Senate and White House come January, hope to break the partisan logjam that has blocked the passage of legislation for six years.
Among policy areas back on the table—in some cases for the first time since Barack Obama was elected president in 2008 along with a Democratic-controlled House and Senate—are immigration, health care, the tax code, infrastructure and Wall Street regulations. These are all top issues on which corporations lobby Congress and the White House.
Donald Trump’s election creates an opportunity for Republicans to rewrite many of President Obama’s legislative victories during the Republican’s first year in office.
To get a sense of how big those fights will be, consider this: In 2009, the Obama administration’s first year, corporations spent $556 million lobbying on health-related issues and $473 million lobbying on the financial and real-estate industries, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That marked jumps of $66 million and $17 million, respectively, in lobbying spending on those issues from the previous year.
“Businesses are moving from defense to offense,” said Hunter Bates, a partner at law and lobbying firm Akin Gump and onetime chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.). “What we’re about to see is a host of issues going from gridlock to the goal line.”
That could mean a record high next year of lobbying spending, which totaled $2.3 billion in the first three quarters of 2016, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
“The president-elect has a golden opportunity to teach Washington lawmakers about the art of the deal,” said Matthew Johnson, a Republican lobbyist at Podesta Group, one of Washington’s top lobbying firms. If Mr. Trump and Congress take action on immigration, health care and other areas, he said, “That is a full plate. That’s a legislative bonanza.”
Some corporations and lobbying shops had bulked up their Democratic wings during the Obama administration and in anticipation of a victory by Democrat Hillary Clinton. Mr. Trump’s win means they need to restack their Republican operations.
For those who expected a “more seamless transition to the Clinton administration, obviously that’s going to change quite a bit,” said Mike DuHaime, a longtime adviser to Trump surrogates Chris Christie and Rudy Giuliani who heads the New Jersey and Pennsylvania public affairs operations at the bipartisan lobbying firm Mercury LLC.
Still, Republicans’ slim majority in the Senate means corporations need to keep their Democratic lobbyists on the payroll, too, since the GOP will need at least eight Democratic votes in the Senate to pass most major legislation. “A lot of strange bedfellows and new alliances are going to be formed,” said Paul Brathwaite, a Democratic lobbyist at Podesta Group.
Mr. Trump has also indicated an interest in legislation that in the past won bipartisan support, including bills on paid maternity leave and infrastructure spending—the latter an area where incoming Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.) has said he would look to work with the president-elect.
Any new administration and a new Congress brings new tasks—and opportunities—for lobbyists.
There are confirmation hearings for presidential appointees, the reshuffling of members on key committees in the House and Senate, and a crop of new members entering the next Congress, whom lobbyists aim to meet—and begin schmoozing—as early as possible. Podesta Group has some “meet-and-greet” events with new members lined up for this week, Mr. Brathwaite said.
But with Mr. Trump, lobbyists also face a unique test: how to approach a largely unpredictable administration. Mr. Trump doesn’t have any elective experience or government record that lobbyists could examine to understand what path he might take in Washington.
“Many companies are looking to figure out how they can analyze what a Trump presidency would be like, what kind of policies he would pursue,” Mr. DuHaime said.
Unlike with past Republican nominees, few lobbyists made it into Mr. Trump’s inner circle and none raised substantial amounts of money for his campaign. In 2012, registered lobbyists had raised more than $17 million for GOP nominee Mitt Romney.
Mr. Trump has pledged to “drain the swamp” of special interests in Washington. His transition team released an ethics code barring registered lobbyists from working on transition matters on which they had previously lobbied the government. Team members also will be banned from registering as a lobbyist for the following five years.
Yet that ban could have unintended effects. In 2008, Mr. Obama enacted a somewhat looser lobbying restriction, banning people on his transition team from lobbying for one year, which helped prompt lobbyists to reconsider the way they do business.
After previously climbing steadily, the number of registered lobbyists has declined each year since 2008—with 10,882 registered as of the most recent filings in 2016, down from 14,153 in 2008, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
That decline stems in part from lobbyists finding loopholes in the rules that allow them to avoid registering, including taking on advisory roles. Mr. Trump’s ban—and his rhetoric against lobbyists—could prompt Republican lobbyists to increasingly do the same.
Even in Mr. Trump’s Washington, lobbyists will still find themselves with a hefty role to play—though not on the president-elect’s transition team. At least a half-dozen major lobbyists had been hired to oversee departments on the team before it released its code of ethics under the leadership of Vice President-elect Mike Pence. After the code’s release, some of the lobbyists simply terminated their registrations and kept their posts.
Asked about the reliance on lobbyists in an interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes” earlier this month, Mr. Trump said his team had hired them because of how well they knew the system.
“That’s the only people you have down there,” he said. “I mean, the whole place is one big lobbyist.”
Two days later, Mr. Pence ordered all lobbyists removed from the effort.