Mr. Cook goes to Washington

May 25, 2012, 12:54 PM UTC
Source: Speaker’s blog

FORTUNE — Apple CEO Tim Cook got barely any notice when he slipped into the Capitol last Tuesday for a handful of meetings with Congressional leaders. The low-key visit was in keeping with the company’s traditional approach to Washington. But the fact that Cook visited at all signals a subtle but significant pivot for the outfit inside the Beltway.

For years, Apple has hewed to a studiously hands-off lobbying strategy, flowing from co-founder and longtime CEO Steve Jobs’ aversion to tangling with the policymaking process. As his successor begins to put his own imprint on the company, however, Cook wants key players in Washington to know they now have an open line to the chief executive in Cupertino.

That was the message aides briefed on the meetings said Cook conveyed in sit-downs with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Cook didn’t connect with the top House Democrat, Nancy Pelosi, who hails from neighboring San Francisco, because she was traveling back from an official trip to Afghanistan when he made his rounds.

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The huddles were brief and largely introductory. McConnell, for example, mentioned his iPad, and they discussed the fact that the glass used on the device and in the iPhone is manufactured at a Corning plant in Kentucky. But the talks did not delve into the company’s current headaches in Washington — the Justice Department lawsuit over e-books pricing, a look by the International Trade Commission into whether Apple violated a Motorola patent, and gripes from lawmakers about the company’s effective tax rate. Instead, aides described the talks as get-to-know-you sessions that also touched obliquely on the economy and jobs.

“It was an act of opening up a line of communication,” one aide briefed on a meeting said, “but it was a first step in what hopefully will be a growing relationship. They didn’t become best buds in one meeting.”

An informed industry source said the meetings were consistent with the Apple (AAPL) way: “They were quiet and focused. There was no public statement, no press conference, no hoopla, just like the company, which is focused on product design and end results.” The source added that Cook, unlike Jobs, “has a strong personal interest in policy issues and recognizes the role an engaged CEO can play in making a difference on those policy priorities.”

President Obama cultivated a relationship with Jobs, seeking him out for economic counsel. But even as Apple’s explosive growth earned it new and not-always friendly attention from policymakers, Jobs avoided the kind of courtesy calls Cook made on Capitol Hill last week, and the company itself has maintained a low profile. Though it participated in other hearings in the last Congress, Apple joined Google (GOOG) in declining to send executives to testify at an April 2010 hearing on Internet privacy, prompting Senate Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) to snap, “When people don’t show up when we asked them to… all it does is increase our interest in what they’re doing and why they don’t show up… It was a stupid mistake for them not to show up, and I say shame on them.”

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Cook’s visit followed other moves indicating the company may be getting more engaged. In March, for example, Apple met with Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) about his concerns regarding a privacy loophole on smartphones. “They were friendly and open to the idea that this ought to be changed,” Schumer told the New York Times. That same week, Apple responded to separate privacy concerns raised by Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) with a five-page letter.

For its size, the company maintains an exceedingly modest lobbying footprint, spending only $500,000 on advocacy in the first quarter of the year. Google, by comparison, spent 10 times that amount. And unlike most major companies with a stake in the capital, it has no political action committee to dole out campaign funds to lawmakers. That likely won’t change overnight, but it is clear the Cook era at Apple has announced itself, quietly, in Washington.