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Though House Republicans’ tough talk on earmark reforms may turn out to be more noise than substance, that’s little consolation to the city’s appropriations lobbyists. The uncertainty about the number of earmarks and their size has them bracing for a difficult year.

Even President Bush is piling on, threatening to veto any spending bill that doesn’t cut the projects in half.

“There is a constant drumbeat that people need to start listening to, and it doesn’t seem to be going away,” said former Rep. Henry Bonilla (R-Texas), an Appropriations Committee veteran now lobbying for The Normandy Group. “People are wondering what kind of future is out there for firms that are focused entirely on appropriations.”

After a year of grappling with new transparency standards and efforts by the House Democratic majority to chop earmarks in half, lobbyists returning to work are facing a fresh set of challenges, including Members who purposely are shifting their appropriation deadlines forward to decrease the number of requests.

House Republicans left their annual retreat last weekend pledging to immediately adopt a set of additional standards for their earmark requests, including a requirement that lawmakers offer detailed justifications for projects they want to fund. Potentially more troublesome for earmark backers, Bush in his State of the Union address last night was expected to vow to veto any appropriations measures that don’t both cut the number and cost of earmarks in half.

One appropriations lobbyist described the situation as “pretty close” to a crisis for the industry. “There’s so much uncertainty across the board. Last year was tough, and the threat still continues.”

While several lobbyists dismissed the House GOP reform package as more bluster than bite, there is evidence a groundswell may be building among Republican rank-and-file to go further. A handful of House Republicans recently have adopted personal policies to either limit their earmark requests to public entities or abstain from pushing projects altogether.

So far, that list includes John Kline (Minn.), Lynn Westmoreland (Ga.), Tom Price (Ga.) and Darrell Issa (Calif.). Their ranks are expected to grow.

“Taxpayers would be better served if funding decisions for many of these projects were made by federal agencies,” Issa said in a statement announcing the policy last week.

That means Issa will forgo some of the types of projects he secured last year, such as $2.5 million in the defense spending bill for CERCOM to manufacture body armor and $1.8 million in the same measure for Vertigo Inc. to develop an “advanced large shelter.” Neither company has registered lobbyists listed in the Senate database.

Other lawmakers are taking a less direct approach, moving to limit the number of requests they receive by imposing earlier deadlines for them.

While in past years, those cutoffs usually fell in late February or March, appropriations lobbyists said deadlines for several lawmakers already have passed, with many more on deck in the next two weeks.

“Member deadlines are earlier, and schedules are being pushed up without any clear guidance about how the Appropriations Committee will deal with requests or how Members’ offices will deal with requests,” said Greg Gill, a lobbyist for Cassidy & Associates.

The developments are the latest bad news for appropriations lobbyists since the scandal surrounding former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) in 2005 rocked the earmarking process, attracting intense scrutiny from federal prosecutors and national media.

That year, the number of lobbying contracts for work on budget or appropriations issues reached an all-time high of 1,259, according to an analysis of figures from CQ MoneyLine. In the two years since, the figures indicate appropriations work has been harder to come by, with the number of contracts falling to 1,170 in 2006, and slipping further last year, to 1,157.

“The era of just throwing something in and not having professional lobbying involved is over,” said Rich Gold, who heads the lobbying practice at Holland & Knight. But he said stiffer competition for a shrinking pot of dollars actually has benefited his firm.

“Ironically, the more they raise the bar, the more folks like us who are really good are valued,” he said. This year, for the second in a row, Gold said the firm has grown its book of business by at least 10 percent.

Others said they are dealing with the cloudy outlook by being as candid with their clients as possible. “You just cannot forecast as much success as you could in the past,” Bonilla said.

Another appropriations lobbyist, speaking on background, said leaner times could prove healthy for the business long term. “We were due for a shakeout,” this lobbyist said. “Lobbying has been growing tremendously in the past several years, with anyone thinking they could leave the Hill to put out a shingle. It’ll shake out and we’ll see who survives.”

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