Comcast No Longer Tech Industry’s Biggest Spender on Lobbying

Company has been usurped by Google. But here's what Comcast's $16.8 million in lobbying spending in 2014 doesn't include.

Comcast is no longer the tech industry’s biggest spender on lobbying. That distinction now belongs to Google. Comcast is in second place — by a mere $30,000.

Consumer Watchdog, which unveiled its annual report on the industry’s lobbying expenditures on Wednesday, said Comcast spent $16.8 million on lobbying in 2014. (That number is actually  a 10 percent decrease from $18.71 million in 2013.) Google, meanwhile, spent $16.83 million on lobbying during the year.

That’s somewhat surprising: After all, Comcast spent most of 2014 trying to persuade state and federal officials to approve its proposed merger with Time Warner Cable. (That company spent $7.83 million in 2014, a 6 percent decrease from $8.29 million in 2013.) Time magazine reported in April that the company had as many as 76 lobbyists from a wide array of firms working to get federal approval for the merger.

Why so many? The sheer number of lobbyists make it easier for them to make individual connections with key lawmakers and bureaucrats. The closer the connection between the lobbyist and the lobbied, the better chance the lobbying will bear fruit. Many of the lobbyists are former congressional staffers and FCC regulators with still-close relationships with their former colleagues, the L.A. Times said in March.

“I don’t think it’s a matter of the complexity of the deals because any number of those lobbying firms are very sophisticated,” Charles Fried, who served as President Ronald Reagan’s Solicitor General, told Time in the spring. “What it’s about is that many of the lobbying firms have principals or associates who are closely connected to a number — maybe just one — key legislators or bureaucrats or regulators.”

Those relationships begin to hint at another fact about Comcast. Lobbying expenses are an important measure, but they don’t count important ways the company makes its influence felt.

The number doesn’t count resources invested in building relationships, for example — and it doesn’t count the money spent on Comcast’s acts of charity which, while community building, can also help the company’s business objectives.

“The firm has always made sure that the cord linking its Philadelphia headquarters to the government in Washington is taut,” The Economist noted in October. Brian Roberts has played golf with Barack Obama; David Cohen, Comcast’s chief lobbyist, has repeatedly had the president round for supper at his home. This week Mr. Obama asked Joe Clancy to return from a stint as Comcast’s head of security to become acting head of the Secret Service.”

The Economist added: “Comcast’s roots are in cable, a business that depends on local-government relationships, and it knows how to win hearts. Since 1999 it has given away $145m to organisations in the areas it serves, a generous act but also a strategic one. It helps explain why organisations that would appear to have no stake in a national cable deal, such as the Virginia Holocaust Museum, have supported the bid.” The New York Times made a similar point about the company’s philanthropy in February.

Finally, Comcast’s lobbying expense numbers also don’t include the activities of company Vice President David Cohen — who isn’t technically an officially a lobbyist, but whose influence and relationships are nonetheless very handy for the company.

In any case, we’re about to find out how well that web of lobbying, philanthropy and relationship-building has worked for Comcast. We should know in coming months if the feds approve the merger, as well as net neutrality rules Comcast opposes. Until then, there’s a lot more lobbying to be done.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.