As Uber grows in popularity, so does scrutiny of the ridesharing phenomenon, especially among those in Washington, D.C.
But that scrutiny has not stopped many on Capitol Hill from taking advantage of the emerging on-demand service.
Despite concerns raised by some lawmakers over Uber’s handling of private customer data, the Center for Public Integrity found that 275 federal politicians and political committees spent more than $278,000 combined on a minimum of 7,625 Uber rides during 2013-2014.
According to reporter Dave Levinthal:
That’s a roughly 18-fold spending increase from the previous election cycle, when federal committees together spent about $15,000 on Uber services. It represents a veritable monopoly, too: Almost no political committee used Uber’s direct competitors, Lyft and Sidecar, according to the analysis, and traditional taxi use declined precipitously.
Bipartisan love of Uber abounds, with politicos of all stripes composing a de facto Uber caucus, voting with their money for a wildly popular but controversial company.
A wide range of politicians, committees, super PACs and national parties use Uber, including Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi; Republicans Rand Paul and Ted Cruz.
“Uber is the most safe, most reliable and convenient transportation option,” says Uber spokesperson Natalia Montalvo, talking to Levinthal about politicians who have embraced the service.
To accompany the increased use, Uber is also flexing some political muscle, such as hiring teams of lobbyists and former political operatives such as David Plouffe, former top adviser to President Barack Obama, to advocate in both Washington and in statehouses nationwide.
Uber’s rising political footprint comes at an important time for the six-year-old company: Ridesharing services have been under fire for operating illegally in some communities, and Uber has been aggressively seeking government approval to do business legally, as well as to work within strict regulations placed on traditional transportation companies such as taxis.
Levinthal notes that federal records show Uber spent $200,000 last year on federal-level lobbying, with another $110,000 spent in the first quarter of this year. The company also has lobbyists registered in 45 of 50 statehouses.
Regardless of how lawmakers feel about Uber, it hasn’t stopped them from using the service. Levinthal points out that Uber is outpacing taxis this year among federal political campaigns and committees, which report taking trips through Uber well before the 2016 election season starts in earnest. For its part, the company is helping boost ridership among those groups with a variety of specials based on elections and political events — free rides on Election Day for new users and the like —boosting predictions that the 2016 election cycle could provide ample opportunities for Uber innovation.
“Our roots are technology, not politics, writing code and rolling out transportation systems,” says Uber Chief Executive Travis Kalanick in a recent post on the company’s blog. “The result is that not enough people here in America and around the world know our story, our mission, and the positive impact we’re having. Uber has been in a campaign but hasn’t been running one. That is changing now.”