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The COVID Lobbyists

Just 6% of contractors providing COVID-related products lobbied the federal government. They got more than half the money.

By Public Citizen and the Center for Responsive Politics

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Key Findings

  • In 2020, the federal government awarded more than $36 billion in contracts to more than 6,300 companies to combat the pandemic. Just 6 percent of these companies (around 400 in total) reported that they lobbied the federal government in 2020.
  • Just 2% of the COVID contractors lobbied either the Trump administration or the agency that awarded them a contract and reported lobbying on specific COVID-related issues. These companies received 37% of the money, $13.4 billion.
  • Companies lobbying the White House or their awarding agency on COVID issues dispatched more than 3,500 lobbyists to Capitol Hill, federal agencies, or the White House in 2020.
  • The PACs and employees of companies that lobbied their awarding agency or the White House on COVID issues gave $313 million in campaign contributions to Donald Trump, members of Congress, and party committees from the 2016 to 2020 election cycles.
  • Recipients of nearly $400 million in ventilator contracts and more than $50 million in COVID testing contracts lobbied the government for the first time ever in 2020.

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Summary

Quelling the rampaging coronavirus clearly demands the best resources our country has to offer. But when it came to selling goods and services to the federal government to address the crisis in 2020, vendors were far more likely to be chosen if they supplemented their offers of assistance with visits from their lobbyists.

In 2020, the federal government awarded more than $36 billion in contracts to more than 6,300 companies to combat the pandemic. Just 6 percent of these companies (around 400 in total) reported that they lobbied the federal government in 2020. These relatively few companies were awarded more than half – $19.4 billion – of the COVID contract money doled out.

For a narrower slice of COVID contractors that lobbied the government, consider these figures: Just 2 percent of all COVID contractors (142 in total) disclosed that they lobbied the Trump White House and/or the agency that awarded them a contract on issues directly related to the pandemic. These 2 percent of contractors received 37 percent – $13.4 billion – of all the contract money awarded.

Overall, the federal lobbying industry’s revenue declined slightly in 2020,[1] which would be expected amid months of shutdowns and social distancing restrictions. Companies that received COVID contracts also spent slightly less on lobbying than in the previous year. But the contract recipients who lobbied the White House or an awarding agency on COVID issues actually increased the number of lobbyists at their disposal. They deployed 3,559 lobbyists in 2020, an increase of more than 150 compared to 2019.[2]

Lobbyists for COVID contractors stampeded the White House, including the office of Vice President Mike Pence, who acted as the coordinator of the COVID task force. Of the 142 companies that lobbied either the White House or their awarding agency on COVID issues, 107 lobbied the White House. More than a quarter of the 107 had not previously lobbied the Trump White House.

The lobbyists’ outreach to lawmakers and executive branch officials was supplemented with campaign contributions. The 142 companies awarded COVID contracts that either lobbied the White House and / or their awarding agency on COVID issues contributed $313 million to Trump, members of Congress, and party committees from the 2016 election cycle through the 2020 election cycles, including $130 million in the 2020 cycle.

Among our findings about specific contracts:

  • A recipient of $390 million in contracts for ventilators lobbied for the first time ever in 2020. A separate recipient of $80 million in ventilator contracts lobbied in 2020 for the first time since 2015;
  • Among suppliers of COVID testing supplies, at least three contractors (receiving $34 million, $14 million and $5.8 million) lobbied for the first time ever in 2020;
  • GovernmentCIO received $50 million in IT contracts from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Lobbying on behalf of GovernmentCIO was former Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), who previously served on the U.S. House Veterans’ Affairs Committee and as an informal spokesman for Donald Trump on veterans’ issues during the 2016 presidential campaign. Politico profiled Miller in a piece titled, “The Congressman Who Turned the VA into a Lobbying Free-For-All”;
  • The Silicon Valley data company Palantir received government contracts to provide services including monitoring the incidence of COVID cases and coordinating the rollout of the COVID vaccine. Palantir’s founder and chairman, Peter Thiel, served on Trump’s 2016 presidential transition team and was a business partner of Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner. Kushner, in turn, reportedly operated a shadow White House task force that focused in part on making connections with the private sector; and
  • North Carolina textiles company Parkdale Mills, which had previously received just one very small government contract, received nearly $600 million in contracts for masks, gowns and swabs in the early months of the pandemic. Parkdale hosted Vice President Pence a year earlier for a speech during which Pence touted the trade deal the administration had negotiated with Mexico. Parkdale Mills’ CEO has made more than $200,000 in campaign contributions to federal candidates and committees since the 2016 election cycle, and gave $60,000 to the National Republican Congressional Committee in early March 2020, just before Parkdale Mills received the spree of massive COVID contracts.

These and other examples highlighted in this report do not necessarily indicate that companies inappropriately received contracts. Indeed, the wide array of goods and services that the companies provided (including testing technology, personal protective equipment, vaccine development, and much more) were the types of things the public wanted more of as the coronavirus ravaged the country. (There are some exceptions. We report on instances in which defense contractors received tens or hundreds of millions of COVID-tagged dollars to furnish missile/space systems and fighter jet engines.)

But even accepting that the vast majority of the contracts likely did procure goods and services that were needed to combat the pandemic, the heavy lobbying effort and occasional close personal ties between contract recipients and government decision makers raises questions.

Why did so many companies feel the need to engage lobbyists to secure contracts to sell these goods and services? Did the government choose offers based on merit or connections? Were contractors with potentially valuable products and services able to receive a fair hearing if they did not back up their pitches with lobbyists’ visits?

[1] Lobbying Data Summary, Center for Responsive Politics (viewed on March 10, 2021), https://www.opensecrets.org/federal-lobbying/summary?inflate=N.

[2] The 3,559 figure double counts lobbyists who represented more than one company.