March 12-18 is Sunshine Week, an annual celebration aimed at promoting transparency. This story is part of a series highlighting OpenSecrets’ work to shine a light on key areas related to money in politics at the state and federal level.
The cryptocurrency industry vastly expanded its political influence web with federal lobbying spending exploding to a whopping $21.6 million in 2022, an OpenSecrets analysis of federal lobbying data found.
The crypto industry’s 2022 federal lobbying spending represents an increase of more than twice the roughly $8.3 million it spent in 2021 and over eight times the $2.5 million it spent in 2020. The number of crypto clients spending on lobbying also increased from 18 in 2020 to 56 in 2022.
Congress has gained momentum on digital asset regulations, spurred in part by the sensational collapse of the cryptocurrency exchange platform FTX and federal charges filed against its former CEO, political megadonor Sam Bankman-Fried. But Bankman-Fried and FTX are just a small slice of a much larger industry — originally conceived as a decentralized alternative to the traditional centralized banking system — that’s been pushing regulatory priorities on Capitol Hill.
Nearly two-thirds of the crypto industry’s 278 lobbyists are so-called “revolving door” hires, meaning they held jobs at the federal government before making the switch to represent the crypto industry’s interests. Six of those lobbyists were former members of Congress.
After former Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) announced he would not seek reelection in the 2020 election cycle, he founded the Conaway Graves Group, which lobbied for FTX, Ripple and Association for Digital Asset Markets last year. Former Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), who held office for two decades until making the switch to a lobbying firm in 2018, lobbied for the digital asset exchange Bullish US in 2022. Other former members of Congress who lobbied in crypto’s favor last year include former Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Rep. Ron Klein (D-Fla.), Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) and Rep. Phil English (R-Pa.), who all left Congress over a decade ago.
Before making the switch to a private interest firm, three lobbyists held jobs in Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) office. A McConnell-aligned super-PAC, the Senate Leadership Fund, received $1 million from Bankman-Fried just days before FTX declared bankruptcy.
Another three registered crypto lobbyists previously worked for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), for whom Coinbase, the largest U.S.-based crypto exchange, hosted a virtual fundraiser in March 2022. Schumer has called on the Environmental Protection Agency to review a New York crypto mining facility’s permits in 2021 due to environmental concerns, and Coinbase has determined him to be against crypto. Three other lobbyists previously held staff positions with Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who has often taken his support of the virtual currency to Twitter and shared snippets of his tour around a bitcoin mining facility.
The revolving door lobbyists did not respond to requests for comment.
Coinbase spent $3.4 million on federal lobbying in 2022, more money than any other cryptocurrency company. The company’s CEO, Paul Grewal, appeared before the House Digital Asset Subcommittee last Thursday to advocate for certain regulations — albeit in the context of a GOP-led hearing on alleged regulatory overreach by the Securities and Exchange Commission and Democratic President Joe Biden’s administration.
“We need to get the rules right for crypto. Imagine if the United States failed to embrace the transformational potential of the internet in the 90s or smart phones in the 2000s. Without pro-innovation regulation, we live in a far less connected, enriching and dynamic place,” Grewal told the committee.
Coinbase did not return OpenSecrets’ request for comment.
Lawmakers have homed in on FTX, another top federal lobbying spender in the cryptocurrency space, in the wake of its bankruptcy and the subsequent indictment of Bankman-Fried for illegal political contributions, wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud, commodities fraud, securities fraud and money laundering. Bankman-Fried funneled tens of millions of dollars to federal political candidates, committees and parties during the 2022 election cycle.
Bankman-Fried also appeared on Capitol Hill urging lawmakers to adopt regulations on the cryptocurrency industry, including the Digital Commodities Consumer Protection Act, which would give the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission the authority to oversee the digital asset market, including cryptocurrencies. This was also the most lobbied bill by FTX lobbyists in 2022.
“We can’t trash Sam Bankman-Fried and then support his bill,” Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) said during the House Digital Assets Subcommittee hearing, echoing comments he made in the wake of the FTX collapse. “He wasn’t around here as a shorts fashion model. He was around Rayburn and Congress for one purpose, and that was to keep the SEC out of crypto.”
Sherman’s sentiment on cryptocurrency is rated as “strongly against” by a Coinbase analysis “compiled using publicly available data including, legislative record, media statements, social media posts, caucus membership, and public letters.”
Federal Political Contributions From the Crypto Industry Increased Tenfold From 2020 to 2022 Election Cycles
As the cryptocurrency industry’s federal lobbying spending has skyrocketed, so too have political contributions from industry individuals and PACs to members of Congress. Lawmakers with more supportive sentiments tended to rake in more money from individuals and PACs affiliated with the cryptocurrency industry, according to OpenSecrets data.
The cryptocurrency industry contributed $2.3 million to the campaigns and leadership PACs of members of the 118th Congress during the 2022 election cycle, according to federal campaign finance data collected and analyzed by OpenSecrets.
That’s a tenfold increase from the $215,647 members of the 116th Congress reported receiving from individuals and PACs affiliated with the cryptocurrency industry during the 2020 election cycle.
Democratic members of the 118th Congress reported receiving more than $1.2 million from the crypto industry during the 2022 election cycle, while their Republican colleagues reported receiving nearly $1.1 million.
“Here in Congress, crypto is not partisan,” Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.), one of the top recipients of crypto industry contributions during the 2022 election cycle who is ranked “very supportive” by Coinbase, said during the Digital Assets Subcommittee hearing.
Emmer did not return OpenSecrets’ comment request.
The average amount the campaigns and leadership PACs of members of Congress received from the cryptocurrency industry also jumped from $2,295 to $10,002.
Lawmakers Are Split on Oversight and Regulation of the Cryptocurrency Industry
The spike in federal lobbying spending by and political contributions from the cryptocurrency industry comes as Congress nears substantive regulations that would put guardrails on how these companies operate.
A bipartisan majority of senior Hill staffers told Punchbowl News’ Canvass Capitol Hill that they expect digital asset regulation this year. But just 38% said their member of Congress believed cryptocurrency was here to stay, while 31% felt crypto was “a fad and will fade soon.” Another 31% said they didn’t know. These results signal a deep divide among lawmakers on the future of the industry, both an uphill battle and an opportunity for industry lobbyists seeking to sell lawmakers on the future of digital assets.
A new subcommittee on the House Financial Services Committee laid bare partisan divides on just how lawmakers are approaching regulation of the industry. The Digital Assets Subcommittee held a hearing entitled “Coincidence or Coordinated? The Administration’s Attack on the Digital Asset Ecosystem.”
Republicans criticized what they characterized as regulatory overreach by the SEC they say harms innovation. But the Democratic committee ranking member, Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.), criticized his Republican colleagues for parroting what he called “industry talking points on regulatory overreach.”
“This attack on the SEC is a tactic employed by the crypto industry to evade compliance with the laws because the crypto industry knows it would not meet the justifiably high standards that make our financial system the envy of the world,” Lynch said.
Of the dozens of bills introduced by members of Congress to shape the crypto and blockchain landscape, lobbyists for the cryptocurrency industry overwhelmingly reported lobbying on two bills: the Lummis-Gillibrand Responsible Financial Innovation Act and the Digital Commodities Consumer Protection Act of 2022.
The bill — introduced by Sens. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) in the last Congress — was the most cited congressional bill in the cryptocurrency industry’s 2022 lobbying reports. The expansive Senate bill would standardize definitions for the digital asset industry, establish a standard for deciding what digital assets are commodities versus securities, require the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to conduct a study on energy consumption in the digital asset industry and hand regulatory authority over digital asset spot markets to the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, among other provisions.
Lummis asked Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell in a hearing last Tuesday about what the U.S. was doing to ensure it is competitive on digital assets globally.
“The European Union, United Kingdom, Australia, Switzerland and Singapore, among others, have already moved to create legislative frameworks governing digital assets. The European Union, in particular, is attempting to be a standard-setter in this space. Without action, the United States stands to be a rule-taker instead of a rule-maker. We must act swiftly to fully integrate digital assets into our financial system in order to remain the global financial leader,” Lummis said.
The Digital Commodities Consumer Protection Act of 2022, the second most cited piece of congressional legislation in lobbying disclosures from the cryptocurrency industry, is much narrower in scope. The Senate bill would amend the Commodity Exchange Act to give the Commodity Futures Trading Commission jurisdiction to oversee digital asset spot markets, a provision also included in the Lummis-Gillibrand Responsible Financial Innovation Act.
Bankman-Fried was a vocal supporter of the Digital Commodities Protection Act of 2022. The Senate Agriculture Committee held an oversight hearing last Wednesday with Commodity Futures Trading Commission Chair Rostin Benham.
When Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) asked Behnam to weigh in during the hearing on the three bills under consideration to regulate the industry, Benham said the Lummis-Gillibrand bill was “very expansive.” He also said the Digital Commodities Consumer Protection Act of 2022 was “narrowly tailored” to the authority and jurisdiction of the commission.
“Ultimately, when I think about the intent of the bills, it’s to create transparency, it’s to regulate the market, it’s to shed light on those markets so we don’t run into situations like we did a few months ago,” Behnam said.
Benham made clear during his testimony that the Commodity Futures Trading Commission was “a market regulator, we’re not an environmental regulator.” Another subcommittee has taken up legislation to address the environmental impact of cryptocurrencies.
Senate Environment Subcommittee Explores Environmental Impact of Bitcoin Mining
At the Senate Environment Subcommittee on Clean Air, Climate, and Nuclear Safety hearing last Tuesday, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) reintroduced the Crypto-Asset Environmental Transparency Act. The bill pushes for more transparency in the crypto mining industry by requiring miners to report their carbon dioxide emissions and mandate a detailed EPA-led study on the environmental impacts of the practice, among other provisions.
The committee also examined the impact of cryptocurrency mining on the environment, climate and communities. Witnesses from Pennsylvania and New York said they observed noise pollution, electronic waste and rising water temperatures in the communities neighboring cryptocurrency mining facilities. A majority of the scrutiny was placed on bitcoin mining, which relies on a “proof of work” system to validate the cryptocurrency, a process that sucks up high amounts of energy.
When asked whether there was a way to diminish the environmental impacts of crypto mining, witnesses said it was possible for bitcoin to switch to a “proof of stake” system, which ethereum did, reducing energy consumption by 99.9%.
“Bitcoin is wasteful by design, but this sort of waste just isn’t necessary,” Rob Altenburg, senior director of energy and climate at Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future, testified on Tuesday.
Amid the climate crisis, “the energy use of bitcoin, especially if it brings carbon intensive generation back onto the grid, could threaten our climate goals and supercharge climate change,” Markey argued.
“If Congress turns a blind eye to an energy intensive industry like bitcoin while it works to tackle climate impact — it’s like a plumber that tries to fix an overflowing bathtub while the faucet won’t stop running,” he said.
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