The world's biggest cruise lines have roughly doubled the number of lobbyists they're dispatching to congressional offices and several federal agencies this year. But as they try to resume sailing from U.S. ports, one of their most effective targets has been the White House.
A former adviser to the White House Coronavirus Task Force says she and other advisers fielded a stream of calls and emails from cruise line officials, including Carnival Corp.'s in-house lobbyist. Their message: Help lift a "no-sail" order from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that has banned passenger cruises from U.S. ports since March.
"Whenever the no-sail order started to come up, the cruise lines would always engage," said Olivia Troye, who was involved in the task force's discussions of cruise lines before she left government in August. "The phone calls would start. They called all over."
Since her exit, Troye has endorsed Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
Her description of the cruise industry's lobbying, which is backed up broadly by federal disclosures and by other people who observed it, reflects the degree of influence that cruise companies sought to exert since covid-19 shuttered their U.S. operations.
In Washington, the cruise industry has deployed as many as 61 lobbyists this year, up from 33 over the first three quarters of 2019, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, an organization that studies the role of money in politics. The industry has spent $3.2 million on lobbying through Sept. 30, the most since 2012.
Last month, the industry received encouraging news: Vice President Mike Pence overruled a CDC plan to extend the no-sail order until February, according to two people familiar with the matter. That decision was first reported by Axios.
Now the order is set to expire Saturday, and the task force, which Pence chairs, is reviewing cruise companies' plans for countering the virus before deciding whether to allow the industry to resume.
Pence's office declined to comment, including on when the task force might reach a decision. Representatives of three of the largest cruise lines -- Carnival, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. -- declined to comment on their specific lobbying activities.
"I'll have a conversation with anyone who will talk to us on this subject," said Richard Fain, Royal Caribbean's chairman and chief executive officer, when he was asked during a Thursday conference call with analysts whether he'd spoken with the White House. "The conversations I've had are private and I would respect the privacy of those."
The industry's trade group, the Cruise Lines International Association, also declined to discuss specifics, but its chairman, Adam Goldstein, said the group has "relationships with many senators, congressmen, governors, mayors and others."
"Talking to elected officials, at all levels of government around the world, is a big part of what we do," he said.
CDC officials remain wary of seeing cruises resume. The agency's point person for cruise ships, Martin Cetron, said, "It's going to be very difficult" to make them truly safe from coronavirus. And last month, in an official order, the CDC mentioned recent covid-19 outbreaks aboard other countries' cruise ships -- despite steps they took to control the virus -- and said cruise ships in general "continue to be an unsafe environment with close quarters where the disease spreads easily and is not readily detected."
Both Trump and Pence have pledged to help the industry, which wields outsize political influence in Florida, a key swing state in next week's presidential election. Cruise lines site major operations in Miami, and sustain multiple ports around the state, and Florida politicians are helping to maintain the pressure on federal decision-makers.
Last month, the Miami-Dade County Commission's port committee called for cruises to be allowed to resume. "We've got to get to work," Norwegian CEO Frank Del Rio said at a public hearing. "Enough is enough." A few days later, Florida Sens. Rick Scott and Marco Rubio, both Republicans, proposed shifting covid-related oversight of when cruising can resume from the CDC to a group of agencies led by the Department of Homeland Security, after consultation with cruise lines.
The Washington lobbying effort appears to be paying off, said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who has sought stricter regulation of cruise ships. "Not surprisingly, the cruise industry is weaponizing its formidable political muscle to set sail again without common-sense health-care upgrades," Blumenthal said in a statement.