Washington lobbying business surges to eight-year high

$3.4 billion spent in 2018

By FREDREKA SCHOUTEN
Getty Images

(CNN) - Lobbying activity in Washington surged to $3.4 billion last year -- its highest level since 2010 -- as companies, trade groups and other interests raced to shape policies on international trade, drug prices and other issues during President Donald Trump's second year in office, a new tally shows.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce posted the highest lobbying bill in 2018, spending nearly $95 million, according to an analysis of newly filed lobbying reports by the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics. During the last three months of the year alone, the business group spent nearly $26 million as it worked to oppose the Trump administration's tariffs on Canadian and Mexican steel and aluminum.

The National Association of Realtors, a perennial lobbying force in Washington, was the second-highest spender on federal lobbying last year, driving nearly $73 million into those efforts, the center found.

The industry spending the most by far: The pharmaceutical and health products sector. Its trade group, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, and individual drug companies together spent a staggering $280 million on federal lobbying in 2018, far surpassing other sectors. The big outlays come as the White House and Congress push plans that would limit drug companies' price increases.

The record for Washington lobbying activity -- $3.51 billion -- was set in 2010, the year Congress passed the Affordable Care Act, overhauling the nation's health insurance system.

Lobbyists filed reports this week detailing their year-end activity to Congress. The new reports highlight a growing force in the DC lobbying world: Brian Ballard, a veteran Florida lobbyist with strong ties to the Trump administration.

Ballard Partners, which he established in Washington two years ago, reported $18.3 million in domestic lobbying income, catapulting it into the top 10 lobbying firms in the nation's capital. Ballard counts Trump as a former lobbying client and served as a top fundraiser for both Trump's campaign and inaugural festivities. Susie Wiles, a managing partner at the firm, ran Trump's successful Florida campaign in 2016.

Ballard's ties to Trump allies have only deepened. Raj Shah, the White House deputy press secretary, joined the firm this month to head its new media practice. And earlier this week, Ballard Partners announced that another Trump ally, former Florida attorney general Pam Bondi, would head its corporate regulatory compliance practice.

Ballard has also attracted an array of domestic and foreign clients -- ranging from private prison contractor GEO Group to the tourism arm of the Maldives, a country that faced criticism for its crackdown on opposition leaders.

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