Facebook Inc. (FB:US) Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg arrived on Capitol Hill in a business suit to meet a U.S. senator. For his next engagement, he emerged from a car in his familiar hooded sweatshirt and Nike sneakers to speak to a roomful of women and men in suits.
“People assume that we’re trying to be cool,” Zuckerberg, 29, told his Washington audience yesterday. “That’s never been my goal. I’m like the least cool person there is.”
Cool or not, a billionaire with 1 billion customers commands undivided attention where money and influence conjoin. That much was clear yesterday when Zuckerberg arrived for two days of private meetings with Republican and Democratic leaders otherwise occupied with a budget showdown threatening to shut down the U.S. government.
“He was very kind and thoughtful,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters after meeting today with Zuckerberg, who had donned a suit again. “He took pictures with all my staff.”
Not all lawmakers were into hero worship. Senator Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat and chairman of the commerce committee, said in a statement he stressed to the CEO “the utmost importance of strong consumer protections and how this must be a priority for his company.”
Zuckerberg ranked 27th, with a net worth of $22.1 billion, on yesterday’s Bloomberg Billionaires Index of the world’s wealthiest individuals. He’s making what he called his once-a year visit every three years to Washington as the world’s largest social network tries to engage on policy issues.
“Zuckerberg has not forged a strong relationship with a lot of these lawmakers,” said Ron Bonjean, who was press secretary to former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and House Speaker Dennis Hastert. “It’s smart of him to come out of the ivory tower and talk to elected officials.”
Zuckerberg in April announced the formation of an advocacy group, Fwd.us, to push for more visas for skilled immigrant workers. He pressed that cause yesterday in a meeting with Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, and later in a public question-and-answer session at the city’s Newseum.
Increasing visas for foreign technology workers “isn’t the big point,” Zuckerberg said during yesterday’s session with James Bennet, editor-in-chief of The Atlantic, a publisher of current-affairs websites and a magazine. “Addressing and helping out the 11 million undocumented is actually a much bigger problem.”
Zuckerberg and Schumer, the No. 3 Senate Democratic leader, focused on immigration reform during “a very positive and productive meeting” that lasted about 45 minutes, Matt House, a Schumer aide, said in an e-mail.
“Both agreed to keep working and are optimistic that the House will move forward this fall,” the aide said.
The Senate in June approved immigration changes including a path to citizenship for about 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., while spending more money on border security. The measure is now held up in the House, where many Republicans oppose giving undocumented immigrants citizenship.
Today, Zuckerberg wore a plain red tie and dark suit as he returned to the Capitol, meeting first with Democrat Reid before holding a private session with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican.
Zuckerberg refused to take questions, but Reid told reporters afterward that the two discussed immigration and also spoke about “The Social Network,” the 2010 movie about the founding of Facebook and the resulting lawsuits.
With a dozen lobbyists and reporters struggling to keep up, the boy-faced billionaire then made his way to the hearing room of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee for a series of meetings with panel members, including Rockefeller.
The West Virginia Democrat stressed the importance of privacy protection for consumers and pressed Zuckerberg to take tough action on “cyberbullying.”
He later met with House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and other leading Republicans, before a final meeting with the top House Democrat, Nancy Pelosi of California, and other key Democrats who are key in the immigration debate.
Republican leaders after their meeting said they discussed a range of matters that included immigration, online privacy, and the NSA’s surveillance. They gave no indication of budging on the matter of a pathway to citizenship.
“A lot of people have a lot of different views on it,” said House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican. “We discussed how we’re working toward solving our immigration problems.”
Facebook, based in Menlo Park, California, had no registered lobbyists in Washington five years ago, and it reported it had only two who were in-house in 2009.
By the second quarter of this year, the company spent $1.3 million over three months to lobby through an in-house staff of seven registered lobbyists and 20 hired advocates from five firms that include Patton Boggs LLP, and Steptoe and Johnson LLP, according to disclosures filed with the U.S. Senate.
Facebook’s in-house lobbyists include Joel Kaplan, who was deputy White House chief of staff under President George W. Bush; and Caitlin O’Neill, Pelosi’s former chief of staff. The company reported it was lobbying on issues related to online privacy legislation, international regulation of the Internet, online advertising, immigration overhaul, cybersecurity and corporate taxation.
Facebook established a political action committee beginning in the 2012 election cycle, and through it the company’s employees raised $345,421 and donated $270,000 to federal candidates during the two-year cycle, according to data collected by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
Zuckerberg, in his remarks at the public event, said he identifies his political leanings as “pro-knowledge economy” rather than Democratic or Republican.
Facebook gave 53 percent of its donations to Republicans in the 2012 cycle, compared with 46 percent to Democrats. Among Republicans Boehner, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and McCarthy each got $5,000, as did Democrats Pelosi and Steny Hoyer, the House minority whip.
Zuckerberg’s advocacy may not bear fruit, Roy Beck, president of Numbers USA, an Arlington, Virginia-based group that backs immigration curbs, said in an interview.
House Republican leaders aren’t advancing the bill “not because they haven’t seen Mark Zuckerberg, but because the vast majority of their membership doesn’t want them to move forward,” Beck said. “I can’t imagine how there’s anything that Mark Zuckerberg could say that could change the equation in any way.”
To contact the reporters on this story: Todd Shields in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org; Laura Litvan in Washington at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bernard Kohn at firstname.lastname@example.org