Bringing together six Democratic and six Republican co-sponsors, Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA)’s newly-introduced American Innovation and Choice Online Act illustrates rising bipartisan momentum to regulate large technology platforms, notably Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. But in parallel with the increasing scrutiny from the Senate and House in recent years, another trend has emerged: enhanced investments in lobbying by these four companies. On October 5, Sen. Klobuchar expressed a related concern during the Facebook whistleblower hearing—that despite ongoing work on antitrust reform, many technology policy issues have stalled in Congress because “there are lobbyists around every single corner of this building that have been hired by the tech industry.”
To put Senator Klobuchar’s assertion in context, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Alphabet/Google currently work with approximately 320 in-house and external lobbyists—up from 189 in 2011—in addition to other policy and legal personnel. According to data compiled by OpenSecrets, these four corporations collectively spent over $53 million in lobbying expenditures in 2020, compared to approximately $16 million in 2011, making them some of the largest corporate spenders in this area.
Beyond the expenditures, the commonly-referenced “revolving door” of former Capitol Hill staffers transitioning to lobbyists, or vice versa, can have a powerful effect on policy conversations surrounding large technology firms. Lobbyists frame certain policy positions by recommending statutory language, suggesting questions for hearings, meeting with congressional offices, supporting reelection campaigns, advising PAC donations, and more. The considerable exchange of personnel raises questions not only over influence, but also over the effects of frequent turnover: topics like antitrust, privacy, cybersecurity, and algorithmic transparency require significant policy or technical knowledge, and the legislative process can potentially stagnate when experienced staffers depart from congressional committees and member offices.
Examining proposals to address lobbyist influence
To address these concerns, some legislators have proposed measures to strengthen the current ethics rules that temporarily restrict members of Congress and certain staffers who wish to lobby after leaving public service.  Many recent proposals to reform existing restrictions are targeted toward elected officials, who exert significantly more political authority and influence than staffers do. For example, Rep. Jared Golden (D-ME) re-introduced legislation in March 2021 to permanently ban past members of Congress from lobbying. High-profile calls to implement similar guardrails have come from both sides of the aisle—in May 2019, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) publicly advocated for a “lifetime ban” or “at minimum … a long wait period” to prevent members of Congress from lobbying.
Yet some legislators have gone further, expanding this focus to measures that would affect the …….