In recent years, Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook (referred to in this report as the “Big 4” technology companies) have become among the most valuable companies in the United States, currently accounting for four of the top five.
These corporations, collectively, have evoked widespread alarm for various reasons. Although the allegations directed at each company differ, they have variously been accused of invading consumer privacy, creating platforms that can be hijacked for deceptive purposes, accruing excessive power and engaging in anticompetitive activity.
Fears over the power accrued by the Big 4 have grown so acute than many critics have begun calling for these companies to be broken up and their leaders subjected to civil liability.
As the public clamor has grown louder, these four winners of the new economy sweepstakes have resorted to a decidedly old school strategy to prevent Congress from acting on their critics’ charges: They have blanketed Capitol Hill with lobbyists and lavished members of Congress with campaign contributions. These companies’ political spending has shot upward in recent years in sync with their skyrocketing stock valuations.
This analysis, based on data provided by the Center for Responsive Politics, aims to describe the scope of Big 4’s political spending, including how much they are spending, how their spending has changed over time, and where exactly they are focusing their efforts.
The Big 4’s Political Spending: $346 million in Lobbying & Campaign Contributions Since the 2010 Cycle; $118 Million in 2018 Alone
From 2010 through 2018, the Big 4’s political action committees (PACs), their employees, and their lobbyists spent $346 million on lobbying and campaign contributions to Congress. Their total jumped from $19 million in the 2010 cycle to $118 million in 2018.
The Foundation of the Big 4’s Political Spending: $309 Million in Lobbying Since 2009, $55 Million in 2018
In 2018, Google, Amazon and Facebook all ranked in the top 10 in terms of lobbying spending by individual companies (excluding trade groups), according to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP). It was Facebook’s first time appearing in the top 10. Google has been on the list each year since 2012, while Amazon started to appear on the top 10 list in 2017.
The Big 4 tech companies’ combined annual lobbying expenditures jumped more than 600 percent from 2009 to 2018, from $7.5 million in 2009 to $55.4 million in 2018.
The increased spending by the Big 4 each year has led to a steady increase in the number of lobbyists working on their behalf. In 2009, 89 lobbyists worked on behalf of the Big 4. In 2018, that number was 277.
Throughout most the last decade, more individuals have lobbied on behalf of Google than any of the other Big 4 companies, often by a significant margin.
But between 2016 and 2017 Amazon ramped up its lobbying activity significantly. After sending 56 lobbyists to Capitol Hill in 2016, the company sent 94 in 2017. In 2018 Amazon sent 103 – the most it has ever sent – and the same number as Google.
Big 4 Company PACs, Employees and Lobbyists Have Contributed $37 Million to Congress Since 2010, $12 Million in 2018
Beyond the lobbying dollars, the Big 4 have other avenues in which they can ingratiate themselves to those who will ultimately decide whether to increase regulations on them and, if so, what those new regulations will look like. Public Citizen analyzed three main contribution streams that will benefit the Big 4 as they inevitably fight new oversight: Company Political Action Committee (PAC) contributions, company employee contributions, and contributions from the lobbyists that lobby on their behalf.
In total, from the 2010 election through the 2018 cycle, Congress has received $37.3 million in contributions from these contributors. During the 2018 election cycle alone, Congress received 12.1 million.
In each of the five elections cycles analyzed, Big 4 lobbyists have out-contributed the company PACs and the company employees. In 2018, members of Congress received $3.7 million from the Big 4 PACs, $3.8 million from Big 4 company employees contributing $1,000 or more, and another $4.6 million from Big 4 lobbyists.
Big 4 Company PACs Have Contributed $10.9 Million to Congress Since the 2010 Cycle, $3.7 Million in 2018
Company PACs operated by Google, Amazon and Facebook (Apple does not have a PAC) have contributed $10.9 million to members of Congress since 2010, including $3.7 million during the 2018 cycle. PAC disbursements were bipartisan, with about half of the money going to Democrats and half going to Republicans. For the Big 4 PACs, it’s truly about coverage, not ideology. For example, almost all members of the Democratic and Republican Senate and House leadership received at least $25,000 combined from Amazon, Google and Facebook PACs during the 2018 cycle.
Further, PACs for Amazon, Google and Facebook all contributed to a filibuster-proof majority of the U.S. Senate in 2018. A stunning 73 percent of the current senators received a campaign contribution from Amazon’s PAC during the 2018 election cycle, while Google’s PAC contributed to 66 percent of current senators and Facebook’s PAC contributed to 60 percent of senators. Almost half the senate received a contribution from all three in 2018.
In the House, the PACs of Amazon and Google contributed to 54 and 53 percent of representatives, respectively.
Big 4 Employees Contributed $3.8 Million in 2018, Double What They Had in 2016
Public Citizen analyzed contributions from employees of the Big 4, focusing strictly on contributors who donated $1,000 or more to an elected official during the election cycle. We excluded smaller contributions because we wanted to narrow our dataset to contributions that were more likely from executives. Contributions from employees of the Big 4 have been increasing steadily since the 2010 cycle. But the increase from the 2016 cycle to the 2018 was unprecedented, as employees of the Big 4 doubled their spending from the previous election cycle, from $1.9 million in 2016 to $3.8 million in 2018.
Google employees contributed the most by far in 2018, $2 million, accounting for more than half of all the Big 4 employee contributions to Congress combined in 2018.
While Google employees may lead the pack, one Big 4 company executive towers above the rest: Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. Sandberg contributed $134,800 to Congress during the 2018 election cycle.
Employee contributions overwhelmingly favor Democrats, with 94 percent of contributions going to Democrats in 2018. But some important Big 4 executives keep their contributions bipartisan. Google CEO Sundar Pichai for example, contributed $33,900 each to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) and the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) during the 2018 cycle. Pichai’s bipartisan national party committee contributions continue a trend started by his predecessor Eric Schmidt, who contributed in a similar fashion during previous cycles.
Big 4 Lobbyists Have Contributed $18.4 Million to Congress Since 2010 Cycle, $4.6 Million in 2018, and Outspent Company PACs and Individuals Each Cycle
Since the 2010 cycle, lobbyists for the Big 4 contributed $18.4 million to members of Congress. During the 2018 election cycle, individuals paid to lobby on behalf of the Big 4 tech companies during that time contributed $4.6 million to Congress.
- During the 2018 election cycle, the Big 4 lobbyist contributions came from just 215 lobbyists, resulting in an average of about $21,000 per lobbyist.
- 14 Big 4 lobbyists contributed $75,000 or more during the 2018 cycle. These 14 lobbyists contributed a total of $1.5 million in 2018, amounting to a third of Big 4 lobbyist contributions during the cycle.
The two Big 4 lobbying firms that contributed the most by far from 2010 through 2018 were the Republican-aligned lobbying firm Fierce Government Relations, which represents Apple, and the Democratic-aligned lobbying firm Subject Matter, which represents Facebook. Since the 2010 cycle, Fierce lobbyists contributed more than $2 million to Congress, while Subject Matter lobbyists contributed $1.8 million. Along with the money, these firms can tout strong connections to the current Congress.
- Fierce lobbyists include a former Republican National Committee staffer, a George W. Bush White House alum, a staffer who just spent a decade working for current Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a former policy advisor to Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), and the former chief of staff to current Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
- Subject Matter lobbyists include a former employee of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), and former staffers of former House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) and former Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). Other Subject Matter lobbyists include the former Deputy Political Director of the DCCC and the former chief of staff of the current Democratic Caucus Chairman Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.). Subject Matter employs a few Republican lobbyists, including a former assistant to former Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and the former chief of staff to Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.).
Members of the Current Congress Have Received $24.7 Million from Big 4 PACs, Employees and Lobbyists Since 2010, Leadership and Important Subcommittee Members Received a Third of the Total
Who exactly Big 4 PACs, employees and lobbyists contributed their money to is important. As is common, the Big 4 companies focus their giving on members of the congressional leadership and key oversight committees.
Big 4 PACs, employees and lobbyists have contributed $24.7 million to the current members of Congress. Of these contributions, nearly a third ($8 million) has gone to the eight highest-ranking members of Congress and the 65 members of oversight committees and subcommittees important to the Big 4.
The eight highest-ranking members of Congress have received $2.5 million since the 2010 cycle. The $2.5 million total amounts to 10 percent of all the money received by the current Congress.
There are 65 members of Congress who either sit on the 4 important oversight subcommittees – or serve as the chair or ranking member of the overarching standing committee – that will be crucial in any potential oversight of the Big 4. In total, these 65 members received $5.4 million from Big 4 PACs, employees and lobbyist from 2010 through 2018.
Amazon Rising: Bezos’ Behemoth Engulfs D.C., Drastically Increases Political Spending in Recent Years
With virtually all the political spending metrics discussed in this analysis, one constant exists throughout: While spending from all Big 4 companies is increasing, Amazon’s spending is increasing much faster than other Big 4 companies in recent years.
Google has long been king of Big 4 political spending, but Amazon is now challenging it for its crown.
- In 2016, 86 individuals lobbied on behalf of Google, while the Big 4 company with the next highest total, 56, was Amazon. But in 2018 Amazon sent 103 lobbyists to Capitol Hill – the most it has ever sent – and the same number as Google.
- During the 2016 election cycle just 34 percent of senators received Amazon PAC contributions. During the 2018 cycle, the number shot up to 73 percent, topping Google’s PAC, which contributed to 66 percent of senators. In the House, after contributing to just 29 percent of U.S. House members in 2016, Amazon contributed to 54 percent in 2018, again topping Google’s PAC, which contributed to 53 percent of House members.
- During the 2016 election cycle, Amazon’s PAC contributed $587,640 to Congress. In 2018, Amazon contributed $1.5 million – a 152 percent increase from the previous cycle. Amazon’s 2018 total is just shy of Google’s $1.6 million.
In the first quarter of 2019 Amazon outspent Google by $450,000, marking the first time ever that any of the other Big 4 companies outspent Google in a quarter. In the second quarter, Amazon and Facebook outspent Google by more than $1 million.
Amazon’s political spending increase coincides with other big D.C.-related investments by the company and its founder, Jeff Bezos. In October 2016, Bezos, who is the wealthiest person on earth, with a net worth estimated at $130 billion, spent $23 million to purchase the largest house in Washington, D.C. According to blueprints obtained by the Washingtonian, as part of a $12 million renovation, Bezos plans to create a ballroom that could someday host fundraisers for the non-profits Bezos is associated with, or perhaps, the PACs or politicians he likes.
The property purchased by Bezos in 2016 was one of the three major investments made in the DC-area by the billionaire and Amazon. In 2013 he purchased The Washington Post for $250 million. And in November 2018, Amazon announced it would open one of its new headquarters in northern Virginia – roughly four miles from the United States Capital.
The Big 4’s Political Power is About to be Tested
A few weeks prior to the publication of this report, Facebook announced plans to create a new digital currency named the Libra. The move has allegedly concerned regulators and produced scorn from many elected officials. Public Citizen testified against allowing Facebook to create the digital currency. Members of Congress have also called on the Department of Labor to investigate the working conditions in Amazon’s warehouses. These issues of course, come after a steady flow of Big 4 scandals over the past few years.
Just last week, the Department of Justice announced an antitrust review of the big internet companies including the Big 4.
The microscope is on these companies more than ever before. If current trends continue, within the next few years the Big 4’s political spending, as described in this analysis, may reach a half a billion dollars, or perhaps even more. While Democrats and Republicans are often angry at the Big 4 for different reasons, there is plenty of bipartisan anger towards the companies. If there were ever a time for the Big 4 to call in their chips, that time is now.
The true value of the Big 4’s hundreds of millions of dollars in political spending, as well as the strength of the relationships this money cultivated, is about to be put to the test.