Lobbyists see influx of new clients amid coronavirus outbreak

Nearly 200 new clients interested in issues related to the coronavirus were registered by lobbyists in the past few weeks, according to a review of federal filings.

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By Lauren Egan

WASHINGTON — While Main Street reels from the coronavirus outbreak, K Street isn’t letting the crisis go to waste, as federal lobbyists reel in hundreds of new — and often nontraditional — clients amid an unprecedented wave of fresh government funds.

The sheer breadth of the crisis has fueled a rush for cash, and for lobbyists, across a wide range of industries. Nearly 200 new clients interested in issues related to the coronavirus were registered by lobbyists in the last few weeks, according to federal filings. Most of these clients have never hired a federal lobbying firm before, or have not done so in years.

“Industries across the board are being affected. Many are fighting to survive,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks money in politics. “Congress is throwing huge sums of money at this, so naturally companies are jumping at the chance of receiving relief, if possible.”

The Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 requires federal lobbyists to file quarterly activity reports with Congress. Lobbyists must register any new clients and include the issues or legislation the client is interested in. These reports are available to the public.

First quarter filings are not due until April 20, so there could be even more new contracts focused on coronavirus relief efforts disclosed before then. It is not immediately clear how much money lobbyists are making off these new coronavirus contracts, but the payout is expected to be high. The Lobbying Disclosure Act requires lobbyists to file a client registration only if its total income from that client for lobbying activities exceeds $3,000 during a quarterly period.

While some of the newest lobbying clients are industries with obvious interests in the COVID-19 response such as health care and travel companies, new clients span a wide range of industries.

New York's Metropolitan Opera, for example, hired a federal lobbyist for the first time in its history.

Lee Abrahamian, a spokesperson for the Met Opera, said in an email to NBC News that the shutdown would cost it $60 million and it felt that a lobbyist was needed to help "better understand how to navigate appropriate and available federal procedures and programs."

The Met is not alone.

Peace For Animals, an animal rights organization, Century 21, a department store chain, and LaundryLux, a laundry machine supplier, are also among first-time lobbying clients interested in the COVID-19 response.

Six Flags, the amusement park chain, was one of many companies who hired a lobbyist for the first time in more than a decade during the debate over coronavirus legislation.

An executive at Six Flags said in an email to NBC that it felt it was necessary to dip its toe back into the lobbying world in order to “reach as many policymakers as possible” in its request for Congress to expand tax credits for keeping employees on the payroll.

“These are groups that never considered it important or worth the price to talk to Washington before. The (return on investment) now is high enough that they are signing up support from K Street,” Krumholz said, adding that having this many new registrations focused entirely on one topic (coronavirus) was “highly unusual.”

Vyaire Medical, which landed a more than $400 million federal government contract last week to produce 22,000 ventilators, hired the Washington-based lobbying firm Polsenelli to work on issues related to COVID-19. Vyaire did not respond to NBC News’ request for comment about its interest in the next round of legislation.

While lobbying tends to get a bad rap outside Washington, not all of K Street's newest clients see it that way.

Neal Milch, the owner of LaundryLux, said he was quickly able to get laundromats added to the list of critical industries allowed to remain open after hiring the lobbying firm Ballard Partners. Milch said that poor communities often rely on laundromats and it would be a health risk if people were unable to wash their clothes during the pandemic.

“We never thought of having a lobbyist before. We were just a happy little business doing our thing for 65 years," Milch said in a phone interview.

“I'm sure bad stuff happens, I'm not naïve. But you've got to have a little nuance here. Part of it is just getting an obscure industry and the underprivileged people it serves heard for just 10 minutes by the decision makers,” Milch said.