On the first night of the Olympics, Comcast (CMCSA) threw a big party at the Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue, a short walk from the U.S. Capitol. About 700 guests, including congressional aides and administration officials, drank chilled vodka, made s’mores over indoor fire pits, and had their photos taken with former Olympic athletes. Comcast-owned NBC’s broadcast of the opening ceremonies from Sochi played on a giant screen overhead. David Cohen, Comcast’s executive vice president in charge of government affairs—known in Washington as the company’s unofficial chief lobbyist—toasted his guests from a balcony. Four nights later, on Feb. 11, Cohen went to the White House as President Obama’s guest for a state dinner honoring French President François Hollande. On Feb. 25 he attended a fundraiser for Tracy’s Kids, a children’s cancer charity that Cohen and Comcast sponsor. Senator Patrick Leahy, the powerful Democrat who chairs the Judiciary Committee, was there. So were Democratic Senators Mark Warner, Mark Pryor, Sheldon Whitehouse, and Heidi Heitkamp and Republican Orrin Hatch.
As Comcast, the largest U.S. cable company, seeks the federal government’s approval for a $45.2 billion deal to buy No. 2 Time Warner Cable (TWC), the company, and Cohen, are everywhere in Washington—pressing their case with members of Congress and their staffs by day and entertaining them by night. In 2013, Comcast spent $18.8 million on lobbying, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, more than any company except defense contractor Northrop Grumman (NOC). The company gives millions of dollars to politicians of both parties through its political action committee. The Comcast Foundation donated $16.2 million to charities in 2012, often inviting politicians to attend events, where they can be seen and photographed supporting worthy causes. “They are ubiquitous,” says Gene Kimmelman, former chief counsel for competition policy at the Department of Justice. “They really have everything covered at the highest levels of skill and experience.”
Every major industry knocks on doors in the Capitol, often not so subtly seeking to trade votes for campaign cash. Comcast takes a more sophisticated approach to getting what it wants that’s less about twisting arms than making itself a familiar and welcome fixture inside official Washington’s transactional culture.