Lobbying spending reaches $3.4 billion in 2018, highest in 8 years

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(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

After several straight years of modest spending, 2018 was a banner year for lobbying firms.

Clients spent $3.42 billion on lobbying in 2018, the largest sum since the all-time peak in 2010, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.

Spending nearly $95 million, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce comes in as the top spender, as it has every year since 2000. The group spent nearly $26 million in the fourth quarter, hammering home its priority of getting steel and aluminum tariffs on Canada and Mexico removed.

The National Association of Realtors finished in second place with a record spending total of nearly $73 million. The group spent $26.4 million in the third quarter, more than any other group, and $19 million in the fourth quarter as the group battled for realtor-friendly tax and mortgage reforms.

Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) surpassed its 2009 lobbying record, shelling out $28 million in 2018. The trade association spends heavily, but so do its members, including Pfizer ($11.3 million) Johnson & Johnson ($6.6 million) and AbbVie ($6.1 million).

Pharmaceutical groups are spending heavily to influence public opinion and policy as rising drug prices become an increasingly mainstream political talking point. The industry claimed the top spot among lobbying spenders in 2018 — roughly $280 million — with no other industry coming close.

Conservative groups grew their spending by 78 percent and liberal groups’ spending declined by 35 percent. Groups related to Savings and Loans (61 percent increase over 2017) and Marijuana (55 percent) underwent a massive jump in spending.

Several individual clients ramped up their lobbying substantially. George Soros’ Open Society Policy Center saw the biggest change year over year, spending $31.5 million in 2018 and nearly doubling its 2017 total of $16.1 million.

Conservative think tank Freedomworks leaped from $130,000 to $1.88 million, and JUUL Labs spent $1.64 million up from $120,000.  

Not everyone increased their lobbying numbers. After a spending a record $12.9 million on lobbying in 2017, the National Retail Federation dropped its lobbying spending to $8 million. Oracle Corporation saw a similar drop in spending of about $4.7 million.

Despite getting $13.8 million fewer dollars than in 2017, Akin Gump continued its run of lobbying dominance. The Washington, D.C. law firm has ranked first among highest paid lobbying groups every year since 2014.

Every firm in the top 10 has been around a long time with the exception of the Trump-tied Ballard Partners. The group took in more than $18 million last year despite being launched in 2017.

Several new firms, formed from former members of the once mighty but now defunct Podesta Group, made an impact right away, including Klein/Johnson Group ($2 million) and Cogent Strategies ($3.4 million).

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