The verdict for consumers is still out in the mega-deal between Comcast and Time Warner Cable. But for the Washington influence industry, the verdict was in the moment they announced the accord: The merger promises to be a lobbying bonanza.
The surprise deal for Comcast to buy Time Warner for $45.2 billion is sure to attract the attention of regulators and lawmakers on Capitol Hill as it reaches into the living rooms of millions of American households. And defending the proposed cable giant to skeptical government officials will be big business on K Street.
Comcast was already one of the biggest players in Washington, with an $18.8 million lobbying budget in 2013. That ranked the company as the seventh-biggest spender — outpacing perennial giants including General Electric, AT&T, and Boeing, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Time Warner spent $3.6 million on nearly three dozen lobbyists last year, as well.
Comcast counts more than 100 lobbyists at its disposal. Among them is Meredith Attwell Baker, a former member of the Federal Communications Commission, who left that post to join Comcast four months after voting to approve a merger between Comcast and NBC Universal in 2011.
The 2013 combined lobbying outlays of Time Warner and Comcast would rank fourth in the nation — behind only the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Realtors, and Blue Cross Blue Shield.
And that was before the expected ramp-up to sell the merger to Congress, the Justice Department, and the FCC.
That selling began on the conference call announcing the deal. Comcast Chief Executive Brian Roberts argued that the merger was “approvable,” in part because “it will not reduce competition in any relevant market because our companies do not overlap or compete with each other.”
The combined company would serve about 30 million cable customers. But consumer groups are already mobilizing to block the deal.
“No one woke up this morning wishing their cable company was bigger or had more control over what they could watch or download. But that — along with higher bills — is the reality they’ll face tomorrow unless the Department of Justice and the FCC do their jobs and block this merger,” said Craig Aaron, president of Free Press, in a statement.
With its successful consolidation with NBC Universal only three years ago, Comcast has proved it knows how to navigate Washington’s regulatory world. But no matter how robust, no lobbying campaign is a guarantee of success.
AT&T and T-Mobile had to call off their proposed mega-deal in 2011 when a multimillion-dollar lobbying push faltered. Both Justice and the FCC moved to scuttle the deal in spite of the lobbying assault.
To get a sense of scale, AT&T was already one of Washington’s bigger lobbying operations, with a lobbying budget of about $15 million in 2010. But that figure climbed to $20 million in 2011 (T-Mobile’s spending rose, as well).
By 2013, with the merger dropped, AT&T’s lobbying budget was back closer to $15 million.