Big Tech Lobbyists Butter Up the Dems

Lobbyists for Amazon, Apple, and other Big Tech companies are bundling six-figure donations for the DCCC and DSCC as Democratic leaders delay antitrust votes.

Big Tech Lobbyists Butter Up the Dems
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a news conference in the U.S. Capitol on April 28, 2022.

This week, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) took to the Senate floor to call for a vote on a long-simmering bipartisan bill that would reshape tech platform antitrust policy—with dwindling time in the legislative calendar before the midterm elections.

“It’s time to stop throwing popcorn at the C.E.O.s and actually do something,” Klobuchar said in her remarks. “Now it is time to bring this bill to a vote on the floor.”

Referring to the tech giants, Klobuchar said, “At some point they have gotten so big that you have to put some rules of the road in place to ensure that we can have the next Google or competitor to Google, or we can have a true competitor to Amazon… this isn’t going to happen if you let four big platforms control the day.”

The American Innovation and Choice Online Act (S. 2992), sponsored by Klobuchar with Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), seeks to curb the market power of tech platforms like Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google by making it illegal for them to privilege their own products on their platforms or unfairly limit availability of their competitors’ products.

In January, the bill passed out of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary by a bipartisan vote of 16 to six, but since then it has been stalled by Senate Democratic leadership, which has refused to call it up for a vote.  

The bill, AICOA for short, received an unambiguous thumbs-up from the committee’s ranking member Grassley on July 13 in a comment to Punchbowl News. Grassley confirmed he had told Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) that enough GOP senators would support the bill to reach the 60-vote threshold needed to invoke cloture if a senator moves to filibuster it.

A second bill backed by antitrust reform advocates, the Open App Markets Act (S. 2710), which is sponsored by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), has seven Republican co-sponsors and was approved in committee in February by a 20-2 vote. The bill would require that giant companies like Apple allow apps in their App Store to use in-app payment processing services that they do not own. The bills’ Senate supporters expressed confidence last week in their ability to marshal the votes to pass the Senate and the House. 

Advocacy groups that support the measure have been campaigning for Majority Leader Schumer to bring the bipartisan legislation to a vote this month, before the August recess, with the likelihood that its support among lawmakers will be lessened in the next Congress. Focus is on Schumer because he controls the legislative calendar and could bring the bills up for votes whenever he chooses. On Wednesday, Schumer told reporter Jake Sherman that he supports the bills, reiterating his statement from May, and wants to bring them to the floor.

One of Schumer’s daughters is a registered lobbyist for Amazon in New York and another daughter works as a product marketing manager at Facebook. 

The U.S. House is also sitting on tech company-focused antitrust legislation that has long since advanced out of committee. Last summer, the House Committee on the Judiciary approved a package of tech platform antitrust legislation after a marathon markup—with one bill, the Ending Platform Monopolies Act (H.R. 3825), squeaking through in a vote of 21-20. 

Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), chair of the House Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law and a leading supporter of the tech platform measures, issued a statement this week calling on Democratic leaders to bring the bills up for votes.

“We’ve just got to get the bills to the floor for the vote,” Cicilline told reporters on Tuesday. “I am confident we have the votes to pass in both chambers.”

The tech companies have funded a sustained lobbying and PR blitz against the legislation, raising concerns that widely-used products would be affected. Schumer has been on the receiving end of personal calls from the CEOs of Google and Amazon, and earlier this month reportedly met with Microsoft President Brad Smith on a trip to Washington State. 

The new industry trade group Chamber of Progress, founded by a former Google lobbyist and funded by over a dozen tech and sharing economy companies including Amazon and Facebook, has been carrying the tech companies’ objections to Congress through lobbying this year. Industry-funded group the Computer & Communications Industry Association has launched millions of dollars in TV and digital ads targeting Democratic senators who might be swayed to put the tech policy reforms on ice.

DSCC’s Big Tech Bundlers

During the first six months of the year, as the antitrust bills stalled, tech industry lobbyists and lobbying firms, as well as their owners, bundled more than $1 million for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), the main group in charge of defending Schumer’s Senate majority. 

Brian J. Griffin, managing partner at the bipartisan lobbying firm the Duberstein Group, has bundled $45,000 for the DSCC this year, according to FEC disclosures, as he has been lobbying Congress for Amazon in the first quarter of 2022 on “Antitrust legislation” and in the second quarter on “Issues related to competition.”

Democratic Party insider Heather Podesta, the founder and CEO of lobbying firm Invariant, bundled $62,500 for the DSCC so far in 2022, building on the $177,000 she bundled for the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm last year. Invariant lobbied the House and Senate for Apple in both the first and second quarters of the year to “Educate policymakers on competition issues,” including AICOA and the Open App Markets Act. On June 10, Podesta donated an additional $36,500 to the DSCC. Her firm has spent $240,000 so far this year lobbying for Apple. 

Partner and co-founder of government relations firm Subject Matter James A. Ryan bundled $20,000 for the DSCC in the second quarter of the year and personally donated an additional $15,000 to the group on June 14. Ryan previously worked for the House Judiciary Committee when Schumer was its chair, and also worked as a staffer with the Senate Judiciary Committee. This year, Ryan’s firm, formerly called Elmendorf Ryan, has lobbied Congress for Amazon on “Issues related to competition legislation,” including the AICOA bill, and for Meta on “Issues related to platform integrity and related congressional hearings.” Subject Matter also lobbied for TechNet, a trade association of technology CEOs and senior executives whose members include the Big Tech companies, on “Issues related to competition legislation,” including AICOA. In 2021, TechNet joined a letter of 13 organizations opposed to the tech antitrust push, addressed to members of the House Judiciary Committee. 

Other tech lobbyists who have bundled checks for the DSCC this year include Michael D. Smith, a principal and director of bipartisan Cornerstone Government Affairs, who gave $241,500. Smith has been one of the firm’s lobbyists for Google this year on issues including “anti-trust.” Jonathon Jones, a managing partner at bipartisan government relations firm Tiber Creek Group, bundled $87,500 for the DSCC in the first quarter of the year. Tiber Creek lobbies Congress for tech industry trade group the Information Technology Industry Council (ITIC). Jones’ bio says he helped to found center-left policy group Third Way and the Mod Squad PAC, which supports moderate, pro-business Senate Democrats. Another ITIC lobbyist, David Thomas of Mehlman Castagnetti, bundled $80,000 for the DSCC in the first quarter and personally chipped in $5,205

The PAC of lobbying firm Brownstein Hyatt bundled $364,000 for the DSCC this year, for a total of nearly $592,000 so far this election cycle. The firm’s clients include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which issued a key vote alert earlier this year against AICOA. Google and Amazon are dues-paying members of the Chamber, and Meta executive Erin Egan sits on the association’s board of directors. The second-largest lobbying firm as measured by spending in D.C., law firm Akin Gump, bundled $147,500 this year for the DSCC on top of the $117,000 it raised for the group last year. This year, Akin Gump has reported spending $80,000 on lobbying Congress for Amazon on issues including “Legislation related to information infrastructure, broadband, consumer protections and data technology” and “Matters relating to e-commerce issues.”

So far this election cycle, the PACs of Amazon, Facebook (Meta Platforms), Google, and Microsoft have contributed a combined $75,000 to the DSCC, as well as $15,000 to Schumer’s campaign committee and $20,000 to his leadership PAC, Impact, according to a review of FEC information. Nearly 20 Google employees contributed the per-cycle maximum of $5,800 to Schumer last year, as did more than a dozen Microsoft employees, nearly a dozen Apple employees, and at least three Amazon executives. Google software engineer Andrew Chatham donated $36,500 to the DSCC in May.

In the 2020 election cycle, individuals employed in the Internet industry set a record with over $66 million in donations made to federal candidates, according to OpenSecrets, favoring Democrats over Republicans by nearly a 10-to-1 margin. Sludge previously reported that last year the tech giants made five-figure donations to other Democratic Party groups like the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), and that Amazon gave a record $700,000 to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute (CHCI) and $1.7 million to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. 

The DSCC did not respond to a request for comment on the tech lobbyists’ bundled donations. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), the chair of the DSCC this election cycle, is reportedly undecided or noncommittal on the tech antitrust measures. 

DCCC Bundlers

The House Democrats’ campaign arm has similarly been raking in bundled donations from tech company lobbyists and lobbying firm owners this year, funneling nearly $874,000 so far this year to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC).

Podesta has bundled $309,500 for the DCCC, the third-highest amount this year among registered lobbyists. Kevin Casey, a principal at S-3 group, bundled $117,000 this year for the DCCC while lobbying for Google on “issues related to competition in online services.” Longtime Democratic Party insider Steve Elmendorf has bundled $142,000 for the DCCC this year while lobbying Congress for both Amazon and Meta against the antitrust bills. 

John Michael Gonzalez of Tiber Creek Group bundled $100,000 for the DCCC this year. Gonzalez lobbied Congress in the second quarter for Microsoft on competition issues in the technology sector, including AICOA and the Open App Markets Act.

Kate Keating, a partner at the Duberstein Group, has bundled $205,000 for the DCCC this year while lobbying Congress for Amazon in the first quarter on “Antitrust legislation” and in the second quarter on “Issues related to competition.”

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