This past winter, a subsidiary of a Chinese state-owned chemical company needed help fending off the possibility of new sanctions from the Trump administration on their solar industry. So they did what any smart company would do: They hired the firm reportedly comprised of D.C.’s best-connected lobbyists.
The company, REC Americas LLC, is a subsidiary of a subsidiary of a subsidiary of ChemChina, the Chinese pesticide behemoth that made a whopping $45 billion in revenue in 2015, per The Wall Street Journal. And the firm is Ballard Partners, helmed by two Trump World insiders: Brian Ballard, a key member of Trump’s 2016 fundraising team, and Susie Wiles.
In the first three months of 2018, according to disclosures forms, REC Americas LLC dolled out $50,000 to Ballard Partners to lobby the White House and the office of the U.S. Trade Representatives over solar panel policy and trade tariffs. And that wasn’t the only company turning to the firm for help on that specific matter. In the preceding months, Ballard signed two other solar clients to help on trade policy issues and the Trump administration trade actions in particular. Utah-based Vivint Solar and San Francisco’s Sunrun both inked deals with Ballard on Nov. 15, 2017, a day after the U.S. International Trade Commission unveiled recommendations for solar tariffs.
The boomlet for Ballard, which didn’t respond to questions about its work, represents a growing trend in the influence-peddling industry. Across the board, some of the world’s largest companies and trade associations are scrambling to comply with, be exempted from, or otherwise help shape the Trump administration’s ad hoc tariff policies on various foreign imports.
The result has been an explosion in the amounts of money spent to influence the U.S. government—including Congress, the White House, and various federal agencies—on trade policy issues. A Daily Beast analysis of lobbying disclosure records indicates that money spent to influence trade policy skyrocketed from the fourth quarter of 2017 to the first quarter of 2018, when the Trump administration imposed tariffs on imported steel, aluminum, washing machines, solar panels, and various Chinese goods.
In 2017, all federal lobbyists that reported working on “tariffs” brought in a total of $10.2 million per quarter, on average. In the first quarter of 2018, they were collectively paid more than $90 million. Those that reported working on a singular “tariff” reported bringing in $70.3 million in Q1 2018, compared to a quarterly average of just $32.6 million in 2017.
Chinese firms are far from the only ones looking to shape U.S. trade policy. The top lobbying clients engaging on the issue this year include some of the largest U.S. companies and trade associations, including tech companies Amazon and Google, oil giants Chevron and Exxon Mobil, and the leading American business lobby, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
The massive increase in lobbying expenditures reflects an odd side effect of Trump’s impetuous governing style. A man who pledged to drain the swamp is dramatically contributing to it by having little in the way of straightforward policy strategy. Instead of a singular announcement of a new tariff policy, the administration has teased it out for weeks. Instead of a declared objective, they’ve offered several. By imposing blanket U.S. import restrictions and then exempting certain countries on an ad hoc basis, the Trump administration has dramatically increased financial incentives to try to sway U.S. policymakers on specific trade questions.
Just this week, the administration announced that it would delay the implementation of steel and aluminum tariffs on goods imported from Canada, Mexico, and the European Union. But those U.S. trading partners said the delay hardly granted a reprieve, and instead simply fueled policy uncertainty for companies shipping billions of dollars worth of goods to American markets.
For companies operating in that political limbo, the ability to sway U.S. policymakers—or at least be apprised of their thinking—isn’t just valuable, it’s essential. That’s the sort of expertise that politically connected K Street firms, especially ones close to administration power brokers, offer at considerable rates.