AI policy yields a goldmine for lobbyists

The government’s burgeoning interest in artificial intelligence policy is turning into the next big payday for K Street.

Lobbyists are rushing to sign up AI companies as clients. And K Street firms also are being enlisted by a sprawling constellation of industries and interest groups that want help influencing AI policy.

Cashing in on the latest policy fight is a classic Washington narrative. But unlike, say, cryptocurrency or marijuana regulation, AI policy touches just about every industry. Groups as disparate as the NFL Players Association, Nike, Amazon and the Mayo Clinic have enlisted help from firms to lobby on the matter.

Some lobbyists compared the boom in business opportunities to the cryptocurrency policy debate that brought K Street millions. But AI has the potential to be even bigger.

Lobbyists in the AI space said others across town are angling themselves as subject matter experts as the new work becomes available. Nearly every industry has realized they will be affected by artificial intelligence, and the business community is aggressively looking for intel, they said.

“Every lobbying firm in town is trying to make themselves out to be an expert in everything to try and lure in clients, so AI is just one of them,” said one lobbyist granted anonymity to discuss dynamics on K Street. “I’d be hard-pressed to name you an AI expert downtown. It’s hard enough to pick the AI experts in policymaking positions.”

Another lobbyist said that this past spring, lobbyists without any tech clients began bringing up artificial intelligence at political fundraisers as a means to attract new clients. The same tactic happened with cryptocurrency two years ago, the person said. “The whole point of the business is to find people who need your services and will pay you to do that,” the lobbyist said, laughing.

Carl Thorsen, a lobbyist who has some clients with a stake in the issue, compared the pattern to when Congress was trying to prohibit internet gambling years ago. Suddenly, “every consultant under the sun” was working for an internet gambling client, said Thorsen, who was counsel at the House Judiciary Committee when it handled the issue. His firm has already heard from clients that some consultants are pitching themselves as the AI experts, he added.

“What people don’t understand, they are afraid of, and I’m certain there are plenty of consultants who’ve decided to market themselves as AI experts, he said.

The lobbying frenzy started long before the White House issued its executive order on AI and comes as Congress starts to dig in on related policy. Broad swathes of industry are seeking new incentives from Washington — including subsidies for AI research and workforce retraining — while avoiding onerous rules on how they develop or deploy the emerging technology. Other industry sectors are squabbling over how AI should apply to topics as disparate as copyright, criminal justice, health care, banking and national defense. Looming over it all are calls from some top AI companies for Washington to impose a licensing regime to govern the most advanced AI models — a path some warn would lock in the dominance of leading AI firms like OpenAI.

While disclosure forms suggest OpenAI has not officially hired any lobbyists, it’s still building a ground game in Washington. The company recently tapped law firm DLA Piper to coach CEO Sam Altman on how to testify before Congress. It has also hired Washington lawyer Sy Damle, a partner at Latham & Watkins, to represent it in ongoing copyright lawsuits sparked by its generative AI tools. In September, Damle organized a letter campaign pushing back on possible AI-driven changes to copyright law, though an OpenAI spokesperson said the company had no involvement in that effort. OpenAI is also looking to hire a U.S. congressional lead, budgeting between $230,000 and $280,000 annually for that role.

Altman also gave $200,000 to President Joe Biden’s joint fundraising committee. Shortly after his donation, he participated in a June meeting between Biden and the visiting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Altman was also invited to the state dinner honoring Modi.

LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, an AI investor who has sat on OpenAI’s board, has given more than $700,000 to Biden’s joint fundraising committee and has publicly praised the administration’s recent AI executive order. Top Microsoft employees have also given tens of thousands of dollars to Biden’s joint fundraising committee.

“I’m very concerned that AI active executives are trying to cultivate Democrats now just like Big Tech cultivated Democrats a decade or two ago, and Wall Street did a decade before that,” said Jeff Hauser, founder of the Revolving Door Project. “AI knows that decisions in Washington that are made in the next few years will set the course of the industry for a generation. It’s a really good time to invest four-, five-, six-, maybe even seven-digits worth of campaign cash and potentially yield 10- or 11-digit returns.”