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Earmarks, Revisited

Lobbyists Target President’s Budget for Their Projects

Earmarks, those pots of money Congress sets aside for specific pet projects, have been precious gems to the lobbying industry. But with the appropriations process facing new reforms and greater scrutiny, K Street has set its eyes on the Bush administration, not Congress, as a first stop in getting its clients government cash.

Many lobbyists say they are devising a strategy of trying to get more projects included in the president’s budget when it comes to future requests for their clients. That can be an uphill slog that doesn’t always pay off. But lobbyists say they hope federal agencies will help them make their case to Congress to keep the funding in the final budget.

“The earmarking process is now going to be much more limited, and purely political earmarks are going to be much, much fewer in number than they used to be,” said Michael O’Bannon, president of the budget-focused lobbying firm EOP Group. “Instead of doing it the way a lot of institutions have done it — going to Congress and asking for an earmark — now they really need to go to the agency, so that it could be in the president’s budget.”

The president’s upcoming budget, which the administration will deliver to Congress on Feb. 5, has been put to bed. But O’Bannon, a former budget examiner at the Office of Management and Budget, said clients already should be lobbying the administration now if they want projects included in the fiscal 2009 budget.

Michael Fulton, a GolinHarris executive vice president who has clients in the appropriations sector, said one of his clients, the Montana Meth Project, a group working to cut methamphetamine use in Montana, has been meeting with administration officials to encourage more funding for a program overseen by the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The group could then compete for those funds through grants, bypassing the Congressional earmark process.

“It’s important for clients to consider all options available to them,” said Fulton, an associate counsel on the House Appropriations Committee in the 1980s. “Given the environment around earmarks, it’s important for us to counsel our clients on other programs that aren’t dependent upon earmarks now and in the future.”

Fulton said that even getting a small amount included in the president’s budget “gives you greater credibility” on Capitol Hill, and that is crucial in the current environment.

O’Bannon said that in the recent past, an aquarium client might opt to go directly to its Member looking for an earmark to fund an exhibit on exotic fish. Now, O’Bannon said, the client should take the request to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to get funding in the president’s budget, and then hit up Congress.

“That’s going to be the best way to get funding for projects that ordinarily they would’ve gotten earmarks for,” O’Bannon said.

Dan Tate Jr., a lobbyist with Capitol Solutions, said his firm typically doesn’t do earmarking, but it does use the appropriations process to influence policy on behalf of the firm’s clients.

“Being able to work with the administration will be important,” said Tate, a former lobbyist at Cassidy & Associates who worked in the White House’s legislative affairs office under former President Bill Clinton. “People who just thought they could go up to the Hill and fix things through an earmark are going to have a rude awakening.”

Fulton added that oftentimes the administration omits budget items, figuring that Congress will fund the programs through earmarks. “Most clients want to do it the right way and have it funded through the White House, and then people can compete for the funding, but in the absence of being able to be authorized, they have no choice but to go up and make their case for discretionary money” through Congressional earmarks, he said.

Steve Ellis, vice president for programs at Taxpayers for Common Sense, advocates against Congressional earmarks but acknowledged that once something is in the president’s budget, government funding is more likely.

“The best way to get your earmark through is to have it reflected every place you possibly can: in the president’s budget, in the House and the Senate,” Ellis said. “If you get that trifecta, it’s much easier.”

That may be true, but getting into the president’s budget is a dicey proposition.

“Trying to get it in the budget can take a lot of energy and effort but yield very little results,” Ellis said. “Absolutely there are administration earmarks, no doubt about it, but there are not litanies of them as there are in the Appropriations Committee reports.”

Stephanie Silverman, a lobbyist with Venn Strategies, said lobbying the administration to include a program in the budget can net mixed results, especially on Capitol Hill.

“If it comes out in the president’s budget, that could make it toxic for some offices on the Hill,” she said. “But for others that would be incredibly helpful. You have to be careful and mindful of your audience.”

Ellis agreed. Even if it’s in the president’s budget, Democrats in Congress could strip it out and use that pot of money “as a piggy bank to raid and fund other Congressional priorities.”

Bill Skipper, president and CEO of the defense firm American Business Development Group, said many of his clients hire the firm to avoid having their administration-funded requests become those piggy banks.

“Of course it is always best to have your client’s system or service in the president’s budget,” he said. “Now, it is apparent that all projects will come under a significant amount of scrutiny this year and in the future. Because of this, it’s imperative that these projects be in the president’s budget.”

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