Special Interests Mobilize to Get Piece of Next Virus Relief Package
Special Interests Mobilize to Get Piece of Next Virus Relief Package
WASHINGTON — Airlines, hotels and restaurants. Military contractors and banks. Even Broadway actors. These are just a few of the special interests already maneuvering to get a piece of the next coronavirus relief package about to be taken up by Congress.
The House has already signaled that it wants $3 trillion in aid, the Senate appears to want something in the range of $1 trillion, and the White House is now involved in negotiations. The main components on the table for debate are additional payments to individuals, money for state and local governments, extended unemployment insurance and liability protections for companies and other institutions that are trying to reopen.
But the package is also likely to be the last opportunity before the election in November for a wide range of industries and interests to push for narrower provisions that would benefit them, setting off intensive lobbying.
The process is still at an early stage, and the pandemic has forced lobbyists who would normally rely on more direct contact with lawmakers and their aides to turn to other techniques to build support for their causes, such as social media campaigns and newspaper opinion pieces.
But with the pandemic still raging across the country and the economy showing few signs of the rapid rebound President Trump had predicted, the two parties in Congress and the administration are under pressure to come together on a substantial stimulus bill, leaving lobbyists optimistic about getting at least some of the breaks they are seeking.
“With the extraordinarily unsuccessful disease management, the economy is a grave risk again,” said Bruce P. Mehlman, a Republican lobbyist whose firm represents dozens of corporate clients from 3M to United Airlines. “It makes it more likely the White House will tell Republicans to cut a big-dollar deal.”
The $3 trillion stimulus package passed by the Democratic-controlled House in May — a marker put down by Speaker Nancy Pelosi for the coming negotiations with the Republican-controlled Senate and the White House — would send aid to state and local governments and provide another round of direct $1,200 payments to taxpayers.
But it lacks many of the special provisions that various interest groups are pushing for, leaving them to focus now on the Senate and any bipartisan negotiations between the two chambers and the White House.
Republicans hope to unveil a tailored package in the coming days, likely to be about $1 trillion, that would include a series of liability protections for businesses, hospitals and schools. The conference remains divided over how to address extended unemployment benefits, which amount to an additional $600 per week, with some Republicans pushing to lower the amount instead of outright eliminating the benefit altogether.
It is also unclear how other disputes will be resolved among Republicans, including efforts to allocate billions of dollars to the nation’s top health agencies and to states for testing. The White House over the weekend balked at preliminary suggestions for those funding levels, infuriating Republicans anxious to introduce their own legislation before an intense round of negotiations begin with Democrats.
Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, and Senate Republicans are planning to introduce legislation soon that they say would focus on “kids, jobs and health care,” and liability protection for businesses, schools and medical workers.
Senator Chuck Schumer, the Democratic minority leader, told his members last week in a call that “Republicans are stuck shilling for special interests.”
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the single biggest spender on lobbying, sent out an 18-page wish list of actions it wanted Congress to take as part of the next bailout, which would be the fifth coronavirus-related relief bill since the spring.
At the top of its list is liability protection, which its lobbyists have argued will allow businesses large and small to reopen — if they make “good faith” efforts to comply with any government rules — without fear that they will get sued if an employee falls ill.
“I am scrambling to make sure I am not the third monkey headed into Noah’s Ark,” said Jack Howard, the chamber’s top lobbyist, explaining why he put out his full list of asks before Congress came back into session. “You got to hustle like hell before the flood hits.”
Bankers — and many small businesses they have lent coronavirus relief money to — are asking Congress to approve a simplified process for forgiving most of the small business loans under $150,000 disbursed through the Paycheck Protection Program. Those loans total about $140 billion, representing nearly 87 percent of all the businesses that took part in the $521 billion Paycheck Protection Program. Many of them would have already been eligible to keep most of the money; this plan would simplify the process.
American Airlines effectively enlisted tens of thousands of its own employees for the lobbying effort when the chief executive sent a note warning 25,000 workers — including 2,500 pilots and 9,950 flight attendants — that unless the company and union could convince Congress to extend assistance to the industry until March 2021, they were likely to lose their jobs.
“If you are interested in supporting these legislative efforts, we recommend that you work with your union leaders to ensure your voice is heard,” Doug Parker, the chief executive, and Robert Isom, the airline’s president, wrote to employees last week.
The virus has changed how lobbyists do their work. Mr. Howard has spent nearly two decades as a lobbyist in Washington after stints as a top congressional aide and in the White House for both President George H.W. Bush and his son. Never in his four decades in Washington did more than a few weeks pass between his visits to Capitol Hill to catch up with lawmakers or staff members between votes or in the cafeteria.
Now he has not been to the Capitol since March.
“It is a weird dynamic — no question about it,” he said.
With lawmakers now spending more time in their home states, lobbyists have relied more on state-based business executives and employees to make appeals or video calls from home to make their pitches. That includes the restaurant industry, which alone is asking for a $120 billion bailout, and which created a new coronavirus lobbying campaign, Restaurants Act, that it claims has resulted in 500,000 appeals to members of Congress.
Giant military contractors have tried similar tactics, turning to their trade association — the Aerospace Industries Association — to enlist small contractors to argue to lawmakers and their staff members that they should appropriate money to help cover extra costs associated with maintaining operations during the pandemic.
That included a virtual event that the trade group set up with a 140-employee Fort Worth company called InterConnect Wiring that makes cockpit panels for military aircraft. Representatives of the company told congressional staff members that it had to hire a nurse to check temperatures of employees and that it was forced to reorganize its production space to spread workers apart, among other steps, to keep its assembly line going.
The industry trade group followed up last week with a letter to House and Senate leaders asking for extra money to help cover what it called “extraordinary emergency expenses needed to respond to the pandemic and keep our employees safe.”
Broadway actors are mobilizing, too, including Alex Boniello, the star of shows including “Dear Evan Hansen.” He has taken to Twitter to rally support for extending an expansion of unemployment insurance to include actors, self-employed people and others out of work from unconventional jobs.
“The amount of artists who are going to be forced to leave the industry forever as a result of the financial devastation this is bringing and has brought is heart breaking,” he wrote in a series of tweets, helping push a lobbying campaign organized by other entertainment industry workers who were now unemployed.
Some traditions in Washington have not changed, like industry executives turning to lawmakers whose re-election campaigns they have helped bankroll to assist with their pitches to get special federal assistance.
That includes Representative Van Taylor, Republican of Texas, who came to Congress after a career as a real estate investment banker. He is helping to lead a push to organize a real estate and hotel industry relief package. His political action committee and campaign have collected large donations from executives at companies like the global investment firm Blackstone, which has a major hotel portfolio, and Boxer Property, a Texas-based real estate firm that also has invested in the hotel industry in a big way.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Taylor, when asked whether campaign donations had motivated his actions, said his efforts were driven by the fact that he had “hundreds of his constituents whose jobs are supported by the lodging industry reach out” to him.
Creative tactics to build coalitions are also playing out, like the work by Sam K. Geduldig, a Republican former Capitol Hill aide turned lobbyist who has dozens of clients ranging from Boeing to Disney. He has teamed up with firms run by Black and Hispanic lobbyists to try to patch together the votes needed for liability coverage to be included in the relief package.
Together they are targeting minority House lawmakers to argue that small business owners that serve their constituents need these liability protections, too.
Some Democrats are pushing back on the efforts to include liability protection in any bill, with Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, tweeting that the proposal was a “Republican ‘screw-the-covid-victims’” plan. He argued that giving employers liability protection could allow them to force workers to return even if they felt the workplace was unsafe.
Part of the lobbying frenzy has been inspired by a favorite all-powerful force that lobbyists know is likely to produce some kind of outcome: Congress wants to take an August recess, and the existing expansion to unemployment benefits — credited by analysts with substantially tamping down the economic pain of the downturn — expires at the end of this month.
What remains unclear is how a compromise will be reached, and which of the wish-list items will be included.
“They’ve got a long way to go and a short time to get there,” John Boehner, the former House speaker, told his colleagues last week at the lobbying firm Squire Patton Boggs, cribbing from the soundtrack of the 1977 movie “Smokey and the Bandit.”
Emily Cochrane contributed reporting.