The US Capitol is seen in Washington, DC, April 10, 2020. (Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
CNN  — 

Federal lobbying spending soared to nearly $903 million during the first three months of the year – approaching record levels, as American businesses scrambled to shape how the Trump administration and Congress respond to the coronavirus outbreak, a preliminary tally shows.

Leading the way: The health care sector, which spent more than $160 million – or about 18% of the total lobbying bill for all industries – during the first quarter, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics. The finance, insurance and real-estate sector was No. 2 at $136 million, the center found.

The lobbying surge “relates to every industry and company in the country fighting for their lives and Washington turning on the spigot with almost unlimited money,” said Dan Auble, a senior researcher at the center. “Everyone is getting in on this lobbying boom.”

Congress already has approved trillions in taxpayer dollars to address the pandemic and its economic fallout, and negotiations have begun anew over another round of coronavirus relief legislation. Although President Donald Trump did not declare a coronavirus emergency until mid-March, the center’s data underscore how quickly the response to the virus became the focal point of lobbying activity in the nation’s capital. The House version of the CARES Act, one of the main economic stimulus vehicles, was the top target of lobbying efforts during the quarter. More than 1,500 lobbying clients cited the legislation in their lobbying reports to Congress.

The center’s tally offers a preliminary snapshot of first-quarter lobbying activity, based on initial reports that companies, trade groups and their lobbyists filed last week with Congress. Typically, another $25 million or so in additional lobbying spending is added to the first quarter total each year as lobbyists and companies file late reports or update their filings, Auble said.

If that pattern holds, lobbying during the first quarter of 2020 will top the previous first-quarter record of $926 million set in 2010 when Congress finalized the Affordable Care Act, overhauling the nation’s health care system.

The early numbers show that an array of individual companies stepped up their lobbying spending as the coronavirus outbreak swept through the country – ranging from social media giant Facebook to individual drug companies, federal records show. The tally also underscores the growing influence of a lobbying firm with close ties to the President.

Drug company with possible Covid-19 treatment

Gilead Sciences, the biopharmaceutical company in the news over the use of its antiviral drug remdesivir as a potential Covid-19 treatment, spent $2.45 million on federal lobbying between January 1 and March 31 – up from the $1.86 million it spent to influence Washington during the first quarter of the previous year, its lobbying filings show.

The filings show Gilead lobbying Congress, the White House and individual federal agencies, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Gilead spokesman Chris Ridley said the spending increase cannot be attributed “entirely” to Covid-19 lobbying because it also reflects the company’s dues payment to PhRMA, the drug industry’s trade group. The company joined the trade association in March 2019, he said.

The company’s shares soared Wednesday after it announced encouraging results from a National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases study. The agency is part of NIH. The preliminary findings indicate patients with severe Covid-19 who took remdesivir could recover more quickly than patients who didn’t.

Earlier this year, Gilead sought and won orphan-drug status for remdesivir from the Food and Drug Administration – a designation that gives drug companies a potentially lucrative seven-year monopoly on sales. But Gilead quickly withdrew its request, amid a wave of criticism from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and public-interest activists, who claimed the company was profiteering from the pandemic.

At the time, Gilead said it had sought the orphan-drug status to speed up approval of remdesivir, particularly for a pediatric study. The company said the special designation was no longer needed once regulators signaled they would expedite approvals.

Facebook surge

Facebook has moved up the lobbying ladder to emerge as the seventh largest federal lobbying client in the first quarter – behind big trade associations, such as the US Chamber of Commerce and the American Hospital Association, and the giant Blue Cross/Blue Shield insurance plans, according to the center’s ranking.

The social media behemoth spent a company record of $5.26 million on federal lobbying in the first quarter, up from $3.4 million during the first three months of 2019, its filings show. Lobbying issues ranged from the coronavirus response and “election integrity” to copyright laws and immigration policy.

The company and its subsidiaries have rolled out new tools to address the outbreak and have faced additional scrutiny over how it handles misinformation about the virus on its platforms.

A Facebook spokesman declined to comment on the lobbying activity.

Trump ally sees lobbying revenue soar

Data from the center and congressional lobbying filings also highlight the growing footprint of a firm with close ties to the Trump administration.

Ballard Partners reported $5.2 million in lobbying activity during the first three months of the year, its largest quarter since the firm opened its Washington outpost at the start of the Trump administration.

Brian Ballard, a veteran Florida lobbyist who helped raise money for Trump’s 2016 campaign and 2017 inauguration, leads the firm. Former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who helped defend Trump during his Senate impeachment trial this year, also serves as a Ballard partner.

New Ballard clients this year include NanoPure, a South Carolina-based company that is seeking Environmental Protection Agency approval for commercial use of its “dry fog” disinfecting system, which it says kills bacteria and viruses on surfaces and in the air.

Another new client – a commercial laundry machine supplier Laundrylux – hired Ballard lobbyists in March to urge the Department of Homeland Security to add it to the list of essential businesses allowed to remain open. Later that month, laundry services were added to the agency’s updated list of industries that governors should considering exempting from stay-at-home orders.

Justin Sayfie, one of Ballard’s partners and a spokesman for the firm, said Ballard lobbyists do not tout their firm’s White House relationships when lobbying the administration.

“That perception exists perhaps,” he said, “but that’s not something that we discuss when we advocate on behalf our clients.”