Members Earmarking Without Earmarks
Appropriators Have Advantage Pressuring Government Agencies
Nobody wants to give up the power of the purse — especially not Members of Congress.
Even though most of the appropriations bills for fiscal 2007 got stripped of practically all Congressionally mandated “earmarks,” Members — and the lobbyists who push for funding of specific projects — have turned their attention to the executive branch agencies doling out chunks of money that otherwise would have gone for earmarks.
Members, especially those on the Appropriations and authorizing committees, can wield considerable behind-the-scenes power to make sure their favored projects get funded by executive-branch agencies.
One appropriations lobbyist, who would not be quoted by name, said Members and staffers alike have been calling agency officials to protect their 2007 earmarks.
“I heard Members and staff already made the calls before they put the money in the” omnibus bill, this lobbyist said. “They would say verbally, ‘If we have this group submit an application — as long as it is complete and accurate and fits within the parameters of the program — you will honor that, right?’ The answer was in the affirmative every time.”
And for good reason.
Jim Dyer, a longtime House Appropriations staff member who is now managing director at the consulting firm Clark & Weinstock, said if anyone knows what an agency’s spending priorities are, it’s the Appropriations committees. And Members can use that power to get their own spending priorities through.
“The agencies recognize that they’re up there for the ’08 budget,” Dyer said. “If they’re going to disregard what the Congress wants [for 2007], they’re doing it at their own peril. They know they could pay a long-term price for alienating Members.”
Michael O’Bannon, president of the budget-focused EOP Group, said that within 30 days of passing the omnibus spending bill, the agencies must provide funding details to Congress.
“To the extent that the Congress does not like what the administration plans to do, obviously when they get that 30-day plan from the agency, they can go back and say we don’t really like what you did here,” O’Bannon said. “That, too, is an earmark.”
Like the unnamed lobbyist, O’Bannon said that the process of calling agency officials is already going on in an informal way, with Appropriations staffers “calling budget officers over at the agency.”
And, he said, it’s likely that the agency budget officer will do what the Appropriations Committee staffer asks “without any acrimony because of the immense power Congress has” over the agencies’ budgets.
But a Senate Appropriations Committee source said that while there may be a push by some Members to bring their clout with an agency to bear, at this point no reports of Senate lawmakers looking to influence how money is spent have surfaced. The aide predicted it likely would take several months before it is clear whether Members have sought to influence agency spending or whether it is a “myth everyone assumes is going on.”
However, the committee source did say that Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) was not “happy about turning over the power of the purse” to the executive branch and that the committee would be aggressive in its oversight of the spending process. The aide also said that Byrd and other lawmakers would pay close attention to reports on how federal funds are being doled out.
Nevertheless, Senate aides privately acknowledged that their offices likely would begin contacting agencies to stress their desire that funds earmarked in the appropriations bills passed last year make it to those specific projects.
Gerald Warburg, executive vice president at Cassidy & Associates, one of the biggest appropriations-focused firms, said that one of his clients, the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency, is fighting to keep funding levels from the Army Corps of Engineers budget, which Congress gave more than $2 billion to give out.
Warburg said a Member of Congress already has had a face-to-face meeting with the agency head to keep the flood-control funding stable. Warburg would not name the Member, but according to published reports, Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.), who represents the Sacramento area, has championed the flood-control programs and met with top officials. A Matsui spokesman did not provide a comment on the issue.
“The best projects are the ones that have to do with public health and safety,” Warburg said. If the agencies don’t fund those types of projects, then when agency officials are on the Hill this year “defending their FY ’08 budget, the legislators are going to be furious.”
Another appropriations lobbyist, who would not be quoted by name, said Members on the oversight committees have a better shot at influencing a particular agency than their rank-and-file colleagues.
“Members are going to treat this like regular earmarks,” this lobbyist said. “They are going to help their districts and the lobbyists they like that raise money for them.”
Colin Wellenkamp, a vice president at the Washington Linkage Group, represents state and local governments — many of which saw their earmarks derailed in the ’07 budget.
Wellenkamp said that because cities and other clients lobbying for earmarks have been making their case to Members and staff for more than a year, “These are projects that Congressional offices are intimately aware of, and they are more than equipped to advocate to the agency on our clients’ behalf.”
Wellenkamp added that much of the money that would have been used for earmarks will now be given out in the form of competitive agency grants.
“We have several clients that are certainly going to try and take advantage of the grant process, to supplement the loss of earmarks in the bill, absolutely,” he said. “The money is still around. It’s just going to be channeled differently.”
Appropriations lobbyists say they worry that some of their peers will end up getting clients funding while they’ll be left saying that no one got earmarks when that’s not entirely true — because some of the most plugged-in Members and lobbyists will score agency victories for clients.
“Everyone is looking at ways of getting these FY ’07 projects funded, and there is some window of opportunity, and it is going to be abused,” said the first appropriations lobbyist.
While there might still be uncertainty about the 2007 budget, one thing remains clear: In the 2008 budget, there is going to be “a tremendous amount of pent-up demand,” Dyer said.