Comcast spends big, casts wide net in lobbying

The Comcast Center looms large in Center City. Comcast's reach will face new scrutiny April 9 as a Senate committee begins hearings on the company's proposed Time Warner Cable purchase.
The Comcast Center looms large in Center City. Comcast's reach will face new scrutiny April 9 as a Senate committee begins hearings on the company's proposed Time Warner Cable purchase. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 31, 2014

WASHINGTON - Since 2002, a New York congressman has tried to eliminate what he calls an "unnecessary perk" for drug companies: tax write-offs for their ads bombarding television viewers about pills for allergies, arthritis, even erectile dysfunction.

His bill has never gone anywhere.

Comcast wants to make sure it stays that way.

Through its subsidiary, NBC Universal, Comcast lobbies each year to make sure the long-shot proposal from Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D., N.Y.) stays bottled up.

The effort to stall the "Say No to Drug Ads Act" is just one tiny example of how the lobbying arm for Philadelphia-based Comcast has grown to reach into even the quiet corners of the Capitol, and sometimes surprising facets of public policy.

Along with lobbying on issues with obvious ties to its business - cybersecurity, Internet taxes, telecom regulations, and others - Comcast has worked to influence bills centered on immigration reform, homeland security, and college aid, according to its disclosure reports.

It lobbied on the assault-weapons ban and on the farm bill, which determines agriculture policy (think: crop insurance, sugar subsidies, and policies on poultry and beets) and food aid for the poor.

The array of bills shows just how much of American life is touched by a cable and Internet giant that now also owns TV networks (NBC and Telemundo), a movie studio (Universal), theme parks, and sports channels.

Comcast's reach will face new scrutiny April 9 as a Senate committee begins hearings on the company's proposed $45.2 billion purchase of Time Warner Cable.

"It's something that involves extending the influence of Comcast over a huge swath of the country, in many areas going beyond just the delivery of cable programming," said Michael Copps, a former federal communications commissioner who voted against the Comcast-NBCU merger and has criticized the company's latest move.

Copps, now with the public-interest group Common Cause, added: "This is a much more diverse enterprise than that."

Matters big and small

Comcast's financial might - it spent $18.8 million on lobbying in 2013, seventh most among all entities, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics - enabled it to weigh in on debates as big as corporate-tax reform and as small as Nadler's quixotic charge against tax write-offs for marketing Cialis, Celebrex, and other drugs.

So when the White House and Democratic lawmakers talked about studying media violence as part of their plans on gun control, Comcast dispatched lobbyists, including one with ties to Vice President Biden, to register their concerns.

When an international trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, was being negotiated in 2012, Comcast spoke up on overseas movie piracy and copyright protections. Sen. Ron Wyden (D., Ore.) complained on the Senate floor that the likes of Comcast, Chevron, and Halliburton knew more about the deal than Congress.

As immigration reform moved through the Senate, Comcast detailed its worries about how changes in visa rules might affect foreign visitors - to its Universal Studios theme parks.

And when Congress considered the 357-page farm bill, Comcast zeroed in on a section covering the Rural Electrification Act of 1936, which now provides government loans to help Internet companies expand broadband service to far-flung rural areas.

The program, which mostly supports smaller, community-based Internet providers in areas largely ignored by big companies, gave out $625 million in loans between 2008 and 2012, according to the Government Accounting Office.

That might not seem like much to Comcast, which had revenues of $64.7 billion in 2013 alone.

Still, four lobbying firms reported working on the issue for Comcast, including one led by former Sen. Blanche Lincoln, an Arkansas Democrat who once chaired the Senate Agriculture Committee.

'The real story'

The depth of Comcast's lobbying reflects "the pervasiveness of government regulation," said Sena Fitzmaurice, the company's vice president for government communications.

"The real story is that seemingly innocuous bills that wouldn't be relevant to a media and technology company in fact have significant impacts on our business, which is one of the reasons we have to constantly be watching and evaluating what the government is doing," Fitzmaurice wrote in an e-mail. "It can affect our customers, our ability to operate our business, and impact our workers."

Tom Wacker, vice president of government affairs for NTCA-the Rural Broadband Association, sat on the other side of the farm bill debate. He pushed back against efforts by Comcast and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association - of which Comcast is the biggest member - to tighten the broadband program's rules and limit how much government-backed Internet providers can reach into the more populated and profitable areas where other companies are already established.

Given the small stature of the providers serving rural areas, Wacker called the interest by a "mammoth" like Comcast "a mystery."

"You just wonder why they would even care," Wacker said. "Don't they have bigger fish to fry?"

'Playing all three angles'

With more than 100 lobbyists either in-house or contracted from outside firms in 2013, Comcast had the manpower to fry fish both large and small.

To be sure, it's not clear exactly how much of the millions Comcast spent on lobbying last year was devoted to seemingly smaller issues. Federal disclosure law doesn't require such detail.

The company monitors 300 to 400 bills in every session of Congress that may affect its business directly or indirectly, Fitzmaurice said. Few of those bills gain traction and trigger lobbying contacts - but the company keeps a close watch because it's impossible to predict what might spark action on a languishing proposal.

Allies and enemies alike speak with admiration - sometimes grudging - for Comcast's mastery of politics, the press, and policy under the direction of David L. Cohen, the executive vice president who first broke into Philadelphia's political limelight as chief of staff to then-Mayor Edward G. Rendell.

"Very few people are good at playing all three angles," said Blair Levin, a former senior aide at the FCC. "Cohen is."

One telecom lobbyist, a former senior staffer on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said: "Comcast is almost without equal the most effective lobbying force in this industry in Washington."

'Self-sufficient'

Comcast usually doesn't ask for much, say people who have seen its lobbying up close. "They need very little," said the former Commerce staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity - but the company vigorously guards its turf.

"Comcast is so self-sufficient, it doesn't want subsidies, per se," said Harold Feld, senior vice president at Public Knowledge, a watchdog group that focuses on the telecom industry. "But they don't want their competitors getting handouts either."

Talks on FCC reform and proposals concerning online video and satellite television all drew Comcast's attention last year. But even when Comcast takes aim at a bill that seems far afield, it focuses on specific provisions that affect the company, Fitzmaurice said.

The appropriations bill for the Department of Homeland Security, for example, included provisions on copyrights and cybersecurity. A bill on federal aid to colleges was intended to limit advertising expenditures.

And Nadler's bill on drug ads threatened to cut into one of the biggest pots of money in advertising - an issue affecting Comcast and NBC both.

Drugmakers spent $2.2 billion on TV ads in 2013, according to Kantar Media, which tracks marketing campaigns.

Like all businesses, pharmaceutical companies can deduct from their taxes their advertising costs on TV and elsewhere as they hawk Cymbalta, Celebrex, Viagra, and the like.

They have fought to protect that tax break, and so has NBC, where a 30-second ad on Sunday Night Football sells for an average of $593,700, tops in all of television, according to Ad Age.

Time Warner and Walt Disney lobbied on the drug ads bill, too. AT&T chimed in on the farm bill, and Disney lobbied on immigration reform.

But few touched as wide a range of issues as Comcast, and no telecom spent as heavily. AT&T, the next biggest spender, trailed Comcast by almost $3 million in 2013.

They're well-connected

Comcast's financial muscle has helped it hire allies with smarts and connections.

When the gun bills were brought up, Comcast worked the Senate and White House through Christopher Putala, a former senior staffer for Biden when the vice president was on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

As Comcast weighed in on corporate tax reform, it hired Jeff Forbes, former chief aide to Sen. Max Baucus (D., Mont.), who until earlier this year chaired the Senate committee that oversees tax policy.

On the farm bill, Comcast paid ex-Sen. Lincoln and her lobbying firm $70,000.

Others who worked that issue for Comcast included the Philadelphia-based law firm Blank Rome; a former aide to Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the second-ranking Democrat in the House; and a lobbyist who boasts in his firm bio that he's on "Team Boehner," a group of "high level strategic advisers" to Speaker John A. Boehner (R., Ohio).

The farm bill

At issue in the farm bill was a long-running tussle over the federal loan program for expanding broadband in rural areas.

The program's roots are in the 1930s, when the government helped bring electricity to the countryside. Then came help for telephone coverage and, in the 21st century, broadband.

Comcast and its allies say they support the goal but want limits so that companies getting the loans don't encroach on - and compete with - bigger outfits that already invested their own money building broadband networks without government aid.

Tighter rules, they say, will prevent overlap, keep the playing field level, and steer loans to where they are needed most: areas with no Internet service.

Supporters of the loan program and consumer advocates, though, scoff at the idea that small rural companies could be a threat to established players such as Comcast. They argue that limits on the program could undermine the smaller companies by hemming them into sparsely populated areas where infrastructure is costly and profits low.

In the end, Comcast and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association got much of what they wanted: new restrictions on the loans.

The issue was mainly a concern for the association's smaller members, spokesman Brian Dietz said - "this hasn't been a Comcast-driven issue."

That left Wacker, of the rural broadband association, wondering why Comcast - which mainly does business in cities and suburbs - would go to war on such a "throwaway issue."

Wacker said ruefully, "They probably had a day when they weren't too busy."


Crops, Guns, and Drugs

Comcast's Washington lobbying operation has weighed in on many measures that, at first glance, would seem to have little connection to a cable and Internet giant, including bills on agriculture, gun control, and pharmaceutical ads. A spokeswoman said each had provisions that touched on the company's business, workers, or customers. Examples:

The farm bill: The sweeping law sets policy on crop supports and nutrition programs for the poor, but one section in the 357-page bill also sets the rules for federal loans that help expand broadband service to rural areas.

The assault-weapons ban: There was talk of adding a study

that would look at the effects of violence in the media, among other issues, to the gun-control proposal.

Immigration reform: Potential changes to visas could have affected foreign visitors who are an important part of Comcast-owned theme-park business, which became part of the company's portfolio when it acquired Universal

Studios and NBC.

The "Say No to Drug Ads Act": The long-shot bill aims to prevent drug companies from using their marketing expenses as a tax deduction. Pharmaceutical companies are among the biggest advertisers on television. A bill affecting that business could hurt both Comcast and NBC.

Homeland Security spending: The appropriations bill for the Department of Homeland Security includes spending on programs focused on copyright protections and cybersecurity.

Protecting Financial Aid for Students and Taxpayers Act:

The bill aimed to block colleges from using federal education

aid for advertising or marketing. It could affect ad time sold by Comcast and NBC. - Jonathan Tamari


jtamari@phillynews.com

@JonathanTamari www.inquirer.com/capitolinq

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