Washington's lobby firms riding high

Washington's top lobby firms are riding high as they enter an election year where the "establishment" is under attack.

Most of K Street’s 20 largest firms by revenue saw their advocacy fees rise in 2015, with some getting an extra boost from the flurry of legislating at the end of the year.

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But with the presidential primary season set to begin, lobbyists are bracing for lean times in 2016, with much of the legislative activity in Congress expected to grind to a halt.

“Our clients are going to want us to work very diligently before the presidential election takes the oxygen out of the room,” said Darrell Conner, a government affairs counselor at K&L Gates. “You have to be very vigilant in order to advise your clients on the way things are developing in 2016 to prepare them for 2017.”

One of the lobby firms that posted big gains last year was Brownstein Farber Hyatt & Schreck, which took in $7.41 million in lobbying fees during the fourth quarter, an increase of 23 percent over the same period last year.

The fourth-quarter total — part of a $25.75 million haul for the year — was enough to propel Brownstein into second place among K Street’s highest-earning firms

“We worked on a couple of those hot issues for clients” in end-of-the-year legislation, said Marc Lampkin, the managing partner of Brownstein’s Washington office. “We get brought in when things are at a critical stage and there are high stakes.”

Brownstein’s lobby shop, which is attached to a law firm, has been lobbying for high-profile clients such as Anthem, which is seeking to merge with Cigna, and Anheuser-Busch In-Bev, which is proposing to join with SABMiller. 

Meanwhile, the law and lobby firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld continued its rein over K Street, earning more than $39 million last year, a nearly 11 percent increase over 2014. 

Akin Gump benefitted from a slate of prominent new hires, most recently bringing on former Sen. Kay HaganKay HaganDNC event calendar 10 Senate seats most likely to flip in 2016 Senate Republicans are feeling the 'Trump effect' MORE (D-N.C.). 

“The structure of our practice — bipartisan in nature, exhaustive in the issues we handle, and fully integrated within the broader firm — has not only proven to be a successful strategy for successfully resolving our clients’ issues, it has also been remarkably effective at helping us recruit top-tier talent to the team,” said Don Pongrace, who leads the firm's public law and policy practice.

For Akin Gump and several other firms that reaped strong earnings in 2015, much of that growth did not come at the end of the year, despite the rush in Congress to pass a tax extenders measure, a highway funding bill and the first overhaul of federal education law since 2002. 

BGR Group, for example, took in $17.58 million for all of 2015, an 11 percent increase over the previous year. However, the mostly GOP firm posted less than 1 percent growth in the fourth quarter over the same period in 2014. 

Monument Policy Group, a smaller operation, earned 17 percent more than it did in 2014 but only saw a 9 percent increase in the fourth quarter compared to the year before. In 2015, the firm earned $5.43 million in lobbying fees.

The last year “laid the groundwork for Congress being more functional again,” said Rich Gold, the leader of Holland & Knight's public policy and regulation practice group, crediting congressional leadership in both parties for helping bills move. “We now have the ability to get bigger ticket items done, like corporate tax reform, as we look to 2017.” 

Smaller lobby firms fared even better than their bigger counterparts last year, with the all-GOP firm CGCN Group earning 33 percent more in 2015 than it did in 2014 — ending the year with $7.7 million in lobbying fees.

Meanwhile, a firm founded by former Rep. Geoff Davis (R-Ky.) and Hunter Bates — the former top staffer to Sen. Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellProgressive group changes tone on Kaine Trump hits Kaine on TPP: He supports a 'job killer' Clinton maps out first 100 days MORE (R-Ky.) — netted $710,000 in the fourth quarter of 2015, a 48 percent increase from the same period in 2014. Overall, Republic Consulting brought in $2.55 million for the year.

The 2016 elections have set up a shorter legislative year, with Congress’s summer break starting early for the nominating conventions. Lawmakers will rarely be around the Capitol this fall, with most of their time spent on the campaign trail.

Still, new Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanTrump, Clinton intelligence briefings likely to start next week Clinton maps out first 100 days Why a bill about catfish will show whether Ryan's serious about regulatory reform MORE (R-Wis.) has laid out an aggressive agenda for the year, raising hopes that the first half of 2016 could be productive.

There is a sense on Capitol Hill that Ryan “wants to go to regular order and drive appropriations bills that will move [other] things at a good pace,” said Moses Mercado, a principal at Ogilvy Government Relations. 

Ogilvy has been working to grow its ranks and reported a 17 percent boost in revenues for 2015, taking in $10.08 million.

The campaign season also has the potential to create an even more politicized atmosphere on Capitol Hill as candidates push legislative proposals that could help them back home.

“Some of the policy riders could become sticking points as the bills advance throughout the year,” said Conner, of K&L Gates. “There will clearly be policy riders that are intended to highlight the stark differences between Democrats and Republicans.”

Once each party chooses a nominee, lawmakers are likely to fall in line behind them, which could throw a wrench into the legislative process 

“It'll all depend on who the nominee is and what they're going to push,” Mercado said. “Both parties tend to limit what they're doing so as not to create a lot of noise on the presidential level, but they also look at the nominee and try to fit into the agenda.” 

Some top lobby firms posted decreased lobbying revenues for 2015, though several cautioned that the numbers reported under the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA) are not comprehensive of their business.

Podesta Group, for example, saw its overall lobbying fees fall about 8 percent in 2015 to $23.17 million, but the firm said its public relations shop is picking up the slack. 

Meanwhile, Squire Patton Boggs continued its descent in the lobbying rankings. The former No. 1 firm slipped to third place in the fourth quarter, earning $25 million in all of 2015 — a 21 percent decrease from 2014.  

However, Dave Schnittger, a senior policy advisor at Squire Patton Boggs, said that other areas of the global law firm have grown exponentially.

“We have seen double-digit growth, for example, in our government oversight and investigations and compliance practices, which now exceed $40 million annually, and we continue to enjoy significant gains in our regulatory and other highly profitable practices as well,” he said in a statement. 

Patton Boggs merged with global law firm Squire Sanders in 2014 and lost a slew of top attorneys and lobbyists. Recently, another chunk of its lobbying team departed for the law firm Arnold & Porter. 

It still boasts a deep bench of former Capitol Hill professionals, including former Sens. John Breaux (D-La.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and former Reps. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) and Jim MathesonJim MathesonDems target Mia Love in must-win Utah House race Overnight Energy: Justices reject new challenge to air pollution rule Former Rep. Matheson to take reins of energy group MORE (D-Utah).

 

LOBBYING REVENUE 2015 VERSUS 2014 

Lobbying FirmFull Year 2015Full Year 2014Percent change
Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld39.3835.62 11%
Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck25.7523.679%
Squire Patton Boggs2531.6-21%
Podesta Group23.1725.08-8%
Van Scoyoc Associates21.9121.850%
Holland & Knight19.8519.661%
K&L Gates18.1317.394%
BGR Group17.5815.7911%
Capitol Counsel17.0918.13-6%
Williams & Jensen16.9316.71%
Cornerstone Government Affairs15.3113.5413%
Covington & Burling13.8211.9616%
Peck Madigan Jones*13.2913.49-1%
Fierce Government Affairs12.9512.028%
Capitol Tax Partners*12.9312.414%
Cassidy & Associates12.8512.245%
Hogan Lovells12.5712.64-1%
Alpine Group*12.1511.426%
Mehlman Castagnetti
Bingel Rosen & Thomas
11.6811.422%
Washington Council E&Y10.9210.524%

All figures are in the millions of dollars

* Calculated by The Hill